Learning to be a survivor in the face of a threat

Douglas County Sheriff's Office provides Active Threat Awareness training

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Going into survivor mode or slipping into a victim mentality can make a big difference in the face of a threat posed at school, work, a shopping center or elsewhere.

Douglas County Sheriff's Deputy Brian McKnight said the chance of a mass shooting, knife attack or threat continues to increase in the U.S. as tempers flare among Americans. A threat, whether with a gun, knife, or chemical attack, can happen at any time, anywhere, he said.

With mass shootings being the most prevalent, McKnight said Americans are coming under threat at grocery stores, office buildings, schools, spas and outdoors.

In 2021, mass shootings have become a part of the regular news cycle, including in Colorado where a gunman killed 10 people at a Boulder King Soopers. With no clear motive, 21-year-old suspect Al Aliwi Al-Issa was arrested on March 22. The alleged shooter is now going through the court system.

McKnight said he does not know why Colorado is seeing a lot of these major crimes. McKnight has been on duty for many school shootings, including the 2019 incident at STEM School Highlands Ranch, the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting, and the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.

McKnight said there is no way to predict when, how or where a threat will occur, making it crucial to prepare to survive when it does.

To help citizens become more prepared in the face of threat, the Douglas County Sheriff's Office is hosting Active Threat Awareness classes. At the Highlands Ranch station on July 28, McKnight taught the two-hour class for a handful of residents.

The class was organized by Aleza Bautista, in coordination with her company, Country Financial in Castle Rock. Bautista is no stranger to dealing with threat. Both her children were attending STEM School Highlands Ranch in 2019 when two teenage gunmen entered the building.

Bautista said that with the support of Country Financial, she wants to start organizing more classes to get citizens prepared to act quickly and survive an active threat. The reason, Bautista explained, is that both of her children had completely different experiences during the STEM shooting.

Bautista said her daughter, in kindergarten, had a teacher who froze and could not react. On the other hand, her son, in seventh grade, had a teacher with military training. The teacher immediately went into survivor mode, talking calmly to students, giving them directions, and making them believe they would survive.

Afterward, Bautista said, her daughter was a lot more traumatized because she was in the classroom with a victim mentality, whereas her son came out of a classroom with a survivor mentality.

McKnight said the difference between survivor and victim makes a big difference in the face of danger and the Active Threat Awareness Training courses, for citizens, schools, and businesses, teach the difference.

In the case of a mass shooter or other threat, McKnight said “fight” is not a bad word because it is important in that moment “to fight like you would never in your life before.”

Also in the audience during the July 28 class was John Castillo, father of Kendrick Castillo who died during the STEM School shooting when he rushed the gunman with other students. Castillo was shot and killed, but McKnight said he immediately became a fighter in the face of threat, saving lives.

John Castillo called the Active Threat Awareness class valuable, telling other members of the class that understanding surroundings, being aware and fighting to survive should be taught.

Castillo said, just like his son, his family is all about fighting to survive and not being the victim. Castillo, working for a hotel chain, said many companies and corporations may have online training, but it is no substitute for in-class instruction and local planning.

Bautista said many national chains may have booklets and online classes, but not many take steps to create evacuation and active threat plans for local buildings.

During an active threat, McKnight said, a person's physical and mental toughness are important. Part of that toughness means looking around no matter where a person is. Whether at work, in a restaurant, or home, McKnight said locating exits, searching for safe hiding spots and weapons should be automatic every day.

McKnight said there are four levels to be aware of during an active threat event, including:

Run: When shots can be heard, is there a safe way to escape and run away? McKnight said if the option is there, people should take it and run to safety.

Hide: If running is not an option because the threat is blocking exits or is already outside, the best option is to hide and prepare for a fight. Find a safe place to hide but prepare for the possibility of being found by looking for anything in the room that can be used as a weapon.

Fight: If confronted by the active threat, fight, McKnight said. Fight with any weapon possible and do not stop until help arrives. Giving some examples, McKnight said a fire extinguisher is a good weapon. If sprayed, it will block an attacker's eyes and remove oxygen from the room, giving people time to flee.

Treat: If the threat is not around and wounded victims are nearby, McKnight said every company, building and home should have emergency kits and training to apply something crucial such as a tourniquet to stop someone from bleeding out. McKnight said at the Columbine High School shooting, some victims might have lived had a tourniquet been applied.

Recover: This area is a key part for those who live through a tragedy. Those who were in a victim state of mind might take longer to get over the mental trauma of a shooting. Those who took a survivor stance will still need recovery time, but it may require less, McKnight said.

To learn more about participating in Active Threat Awareness Classes, email Bautista at aleza.bautista@countryfinancial.com, or contact McKnight directly at bmcknight@dcsheriff.net.

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