SOUTH FORSYTH — Forsyth County Sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and emergency personnel swarmed South Forsyth High School on Friday afternoon after hearing reports of a gunman on campus. Fortunately, they were just practicing for a worst-case scenario.
An actor wearing a black shirt and mask opened fire with a training gun and ran into the west hall of the school. Authorities arrived within minutes to subdue him.
“It was great. I think it was very realistic overall,” said South Principal Jeff Cheney. “I think our students did a tremendous job. Overall the local agencies … did a tremendous job simulating a real experience.”
Parents, administrators and students in the school’s drama department responded realistically to the situation. Adults tried to reach their terrified and, in some cases, wounded teenagers.
Firefighters even set up triage for the incident and carried some of the student actors out on stretchers or in body bags.
“I was in the cafeteria where the whole big ending shootout happened,” said Barrett Crowder, a senior at South. “The shooter came in, fired some rounds, ‘killed’ some people and I ‘broke’ my arm. Then he went up on the stage and like three deputies came in and shot him with the simunition [non-lethal training ammunition] rounds.”
Crowder said the training was intense. He had to attend a meeting before he was able to take part. There were even staff members telling students how to behave to make the situation more realistic.
“It was cool, because the moderators came and told us what to do,” Crowder said. “So, when they came to get us out, we were supposed to resist a little bit, because some of our friends were ‘dead.’ It was really surreal looking down and my friend not breathing and having to leave them behind.”
Cheney, who said he was originally approached in January about his interest in the training, had to behave as though it were a live situation.
“I was actually acting as I would as the principal of the building,” he said. “I was in what was considered to be our designated command center trying to obviously move students to safety in my immediate area along with our administrators.
“After that, I was directing my administrative team, asking if they’d seen the shooter, if there’s locations that need to be addressed, notifying with law enforcement.”
Even the responding officers were unaware of what they were going into, and didn’t know how many gunmen were in the building.
“The briefings beforehand were very interesting because everybody wanted to know, ‘What am I supposed to do in this situation,’” said Sherriff Duane Piper. “And we had to explain to them, ‘We don’t want to tell you that, that’s the whole purpose of the exercise.’”
Piper said that live experience is invaluable should the unexpected happen.
“You can only learn so much on tabletops and talking about scenarios,” he said. “Sometimes you have to put it all together and let things happen so we can learn from our mistakes in a training situation. That way, we don’t have any problems in a live situation.”
For Cheney, emergency preparation was the main lesson from the scenario.
“Our takeaway is that you can never be prepared enough,” he said. “When you’re faced with an actual situation like this, you have to very clearly think sensibly on your feet and try to make the best decisions in the best interests of helping the most students that you can.”