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Teachers learn to deter campus tragedies


Published:   |   Updated: December 7, 2013 at 05:33 PM

CLEARWATER — About a minute into Chris Sutton's speech about being prepared for a school shooter, a woman shrieked and a sound like rapid gunfire rang out from the next room.

The small group of schoolteachers knew this was only role play, but several of them still were jolted to attention by the unexpected intrusion.

“What just happened? Did you have predetermined knowledge of a gunman on the other side?” said Sutton, a former Largo police officer and corrections officer.

“There's not a law in the world that you can create to stop that.”

A dozen educators from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties came to Sutton's martial arts studio in Clearwater on Saturday to learn what they could do to stop a tragedy no one expects.

In the year since 20 children and six teachers were massacred at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., administrators have contemplated arming teachers or implementing stricter lockdown policies, and politicians have debated stronger gun control.

None of these measures will matter in the moment an armed person suddenly appears on campus, though, Sutton said.

“He doesn't care if you're a Republican, Democrat or Independent — he's here to kill you,” he said.

Martial arts professional John Graden, who owns the school at U.S. 19 and Sunset Point Road, has teamed with Sutton to offer interactive seminars on fending off everyone from a carjacker to a heavily-armed intruder.

Sutton doesn't strictly teach fighting techniques, but rather a range of tactics to escape, divert or, if possible, even take down an assailant. It's a self-defense training he calls COBRA, or Combat Objective Battle Ready Application.

This weekend's two-hour class was the first in a new effort to train area educators on what they can do during a shooting crisis aside from attempting to hide students and calling 911.

On Saturday, Pinellas Park Middle School teacher Jennifer Rivera fumbled in her purse for her phone as Sutton rushed toward her from across the room, shouting.

“Try it with a smart phone. Unlock, Siri, Siri!” Sutton said.

It took police about 20 minutes to arrive at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 last year and Sutton told his class first responders often don't arrive in time to stop an unexpected mass shooting.

Rather than passively waiting, Sutton put the group through a crash course on evading or stopping a shooter.

Know the exits, find the nearest adequate cover, keep moving, crouch while running with arms covering chest, have children wear their book bags on their front sides – in short, make it hard for the attacker to hit you, Sutton said.

To disarm a shooter, a group of three or four gathered by a doorway in the studio and rushed in unison, grabbing the mock shooter's arm and knocking him against a wall.

In another drill, he stumbled to reload his pistol and the teachers shouted and attacked him together.

Sutton admits many of these tactics aren't likely to be written into school board policy in the near future. There really is no prescribed way to react when a shooter walks through a door, but the point is to be ready, he said.

“After this, I know what my escape routes are. I know where to hide the kids,” Rivera said after the seminar.

“You have to plan ahead to where you're not panicking.”

Her fellow teachers seemed to agree.

“Now do you feel like you stand a chance in one of these situations?” Sutton asked before dismissing the class.

“Yes,” the group said.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

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