With eight speakers, five screens and a 300-degree field of vision, the VirTra training simulator, housed at College of DuPage’s Homeland Security Training Institute, trains emergency personal before going out in the field. Now administrators and educators are taking advantage of the state-of-the-art equipment to prepare for school emergencies.
The simulator transports educators into more than 30 real-life school emergencies—an active shooter, a suicidal teen, an unruly parent and a school intruder, to name a few. The simulator uses the real noises educators would hear, raising their blood pressure, heaving their breathing and triggering their flight or fight response.
Mike Anders, Security and Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for District 204, participated in the simulator several times while he was a police officer. After transitioning to his new role in the education sector, he knew his top priority was preparing his staff for emergencies.
“It’s just a simulator, but it feels real,” he said. “You think of your own school and students and it quickly becomes personal. It’s stressful but necessary for my staff to experience.”
According to a study by the Educator's School Safety Network, violent incidents in schools have increased 113 percent during the past school year, and school administrators are taking note.
Tom Ross, Program Manager of the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy at College of DuPage, said HSTI’s vital training can save lives.
“Sadly, school violence is showing no signs of slowing down, and the schools recognize that,” he said. “There are thousands of scenarios schools deal with every year, but many don’t have the skillsets to deal with such crises. Allowing educators to become familiar with the feeling of fear helps them when they are actually in these situations but without the added stress of going through drills with their own students present.”
As one of only seven police academies in the state, SLEA plays an important role in ensuring updated safety information is dispensed across the state, said John Mondelli, HSTI program manager.
“We really have to have our finger on the pulse,” he said. “We dispense the information we learn from the FBI and United States Secret Service to law enforcement officials employed at schools throughout Illinois. The FBI changes and adapts its policies and security measures every time there is a large scale violent incident at a school, and in turn, so do we. It’s a never-ending tennis match.”
The expertise of COD’s HSTI program makes it a home base for several law enforcement officials.
After a large push by the State of Illinois to coordinate school safety measures, the Northern Illinois School Safety Administrator’s Association moved its headquarters to COD’s campus to utilize HSTI program technology and receive training, guidance and consulting from HSTI program faculty and staff.
“A lot of school districts have retired police officers employed as their security experts, so in an effort to ensure consistent messaging and safety protocols, they get together monthly to pick each other’s brains and our brains as well,” Ross said. “School safety is always evolving, so having the experts all in one room together, and on our campus, is so important.”
This year alone HSTI has served more than 800 educators and school safety employees across multiple counties in Illinois.
As a retired police deputy chief, Anders experienced emergencies on a daily basis. He saw firsthand how important the role of communication played in de-escalating a crisis. He recently brought his staff to COD to take part in the 90-minute training.
“We know that violence occurs in schools, we know that you are going to have aggressive behavior in one form or another,” he said. “The training at COD is an opportunity to immerse themselves in it, make decisions, analyze those decisions and think ‘OK, what would I have done differently?’ And then you can do it differently. As opposed to a one-time training, where you think ‘I wish I had done this.’”
Kimberly Maloney, a District 204 principal, said she walked out of the simulator with goosebumps.
“I walked into a scenario where there was an active shooter in the school auditorium with a police officer and a few students shot,” she said. “The hair on my body was standing straight up and my stomach turned when that come onto the screen. While it was definitely intense, it was something I appreciated being a part of. I was able to step up as a leader. In reflective practice, I’m walking away able to go deeper in my leadership. It’s so important that we learn how to keep our students and staff safe.”
Mondelli emphasized that while the HSTI program’s cutting-edge technology is important, it’s not a one-trick pony.
“We also do on-demand training at the schools,” he said. “While there is a response component to the training, when we travel to schools we focus more on predictive behavior. Recognizing the signs and evaluating both students and visitors and situations that could be dangerous, as well as talking about how to de-escalate situations.”
And because the school model used in the training may differ significantly from a district’s actual buildings, the training program offered at COD should not replace in-person training such as drills and in-service sessions in which trainers demonstrate response protocols and talk through scenarios, said Ross.
“The program is just another tool in their toolbox,” he said. “Many school administrators, educators and security professionals have learned the run-hide-fight protocol, which is great, but we take that to the next level. What else can an administrator be doing to defuse situations? Run, hide, fight works with, say, a school shooting, but that doesn’t work when a student is threatening to hurt themselves.”
The HSTI at College of DuPage is focused on education for law enforcement, fire science, first responders and corporate security personnel in the area of homeland security. Together with the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy, HSTI sets the bar for education of today's current and future generations of emergency responders, private sector security professionals and police officers.College of DuPage is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Serving approximately 25,000 students each term, College of DuPage is the largest public community college in the state of Illinois. The College grants seven associate degrees and offers more than 170 career and technical certificates in over 50 areas of study.