Central Middle School students in practice mode

Central Middle School students make their way into the McLoughlin High School gym during the evacuation drill Tuesday afternoon. Milton-Freewater Police Chief Doug Boedigheimer observes the practice run.

MILTON-FREEWATER — Leticia Gonzalez stood outside Central Middle School Tuesday afternoon watching as waves of students exited the campus.

The day had an early-spring chill, but that wasn’t why Gonzalez had her arms wrapped around herself.

Her son was one of the students participating in the Milton-Freewater Unified School District’s first active-shooter drill, which had been in the works for months.

With the recent Florida school shooting, district officials accelerated the time line on getting schools here up-to-speed on campus safety and announced the plan for the drill.

Gonzalez was at Central as a parent volunteer, one of those chosen to get an “emergency” call to come and pick her son up, as if there had been an actual shooting.

Having a strategy for family reunification after any school emergency is one of several things on Superintendent Rob Clark’s to-do list when laying out school safety procedures.

Clark anticipated the drill would help work out kinks in escape routes, teacher response, communications and other facets that come into play when a school setting erupts in chaos.

This first try couldn’t be realistic, Clark pointed out, noting it was important to not panic the community by springing it on everyone unannounced.

The school district blocked access to media and others at the Milton-Freewater Police Department’s request, so officers and school staff could round a first learning curve unimpeded and mostly unobserved.

For the Gonzalez family, the drill was double-sided.

It gave Leticia an opening to stress the importance of preparing for the worst with her 13-year-old son, Jorge.

“I talked to Jorge, and I told him not to get scared. He is worried something real is going to happen, that they’re preparing for that,” she said.

“He didn’t even want to come to school today. I told him ‘Yes, you have to come.’”

By 1:50 p.m., Gonzalez was watching a third grouping of students walk past her, smiling and waving to some of her son’s friends. The kids were notably calmer by then, about 15 minutes after the drill had started with the blare of an alarm over the school’s public-address system.

The middle-schoolers had filed out with hands up or atop their heads. Many chatted and laughed while some watched their feet. Each teacher held aloft a green clipboard with his or her name on it as they shepherded students from Central to McLoughlin High School’s gym several hundred feet away.

Some parents, like Gonzalez, had been instructed to pick their children up at Mac-Hi at the all-clear signal and take him or her back to Central to be accounted for.

It was in California on 9/11, the last time Gonzalez watched people evacuating under the screech of sirens, she said.

While emergency responders scrambled on the other side of the nation after planes hit New York’s twin towers, Los Angeles erupted in fires and pandemonium.

“It was crazy — fires, police everywhere,” Gonzalez recalled.

Since her family lived 15 minutes away from downtown L.A., she was called to immediately get her children from school that day. Gonzalez said she’ll never forget that moment.

“Today it was a drill, I tell myself, only a drill. But the memories and feelings just came back,” she said.

Clark, too, has come uncomfortably close to bedlam in his education career and understands how helpless one can feel. Helping Milton-Freewater students and their families be empowered in such moments is an important part of the school safety plan the district is working to build, he said.

Tuesday’s drill was just the starting line. School and law enforcement officials understood that prior notification to the community would change the flavor of everything, Clark said, adding that community understanding and support is paramount should a real emergency break out in any of the district’s schools.

The practice run turned out “OK,” the superintendent said after debriefing with school staff, noting a lack of seriousness from students but that Central’s teachers did well in the drill.

“I was generally happy with it,” Clark said.

No one got hurt, and the evacuation was orderly, if unnaturally so.

“This one worked like we wanted it to work, but the next time around, we’ll probably add a level of secrecy in trying to get to the level of a realistic drill,” Clark said.

The biggest problem every school faces in practicing for emergencies is cellphones in students’ hands, he said.

“Let’s say we hadn’t told anyone; they’d be on their cellphones calling their parents, and people would be flying down to Central,” he said. “We have the adults in the building taking care of the kids, and the kids are calling their parents.”

It’s a challenging time to be a student, a teacher or a school administrator, Clark said, adding he and staff will spend time this spring and summer navigating the new information flooding in about best ways to deal with threats to safety.

“It makes you long for the days of the good ol’ fist fight, that’s all you had to worry about,” Clark said. “Now it’s guns, knives and bombs.”

On Monday at 6:30 p.m., Clark will detail what he and others learned from Tuesday’s active shooter drill in a communitywide school safety meeting at McLoughlin High School.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.