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Parents and employees sue after surprise active-shooter drill at MI youth psychiatric hospital

Bret Kavanaugh for Unsplash.com
In two lawsuits, employees and parents of patients at Hawthorn Center describe panic and terror during the response to an unannounced active shooter drill in December. They say patients and staff at the youth psychiatric hospital believed an announcement that shooters were in the building.

A few days before Christmas, staff members and patients at a youth psychiatric hospital in Northville heard a message over the paging system that caused a panic. It said two men were in the building, firing automatic weapons.

The response at Hawthorn Center was quick, but the situation wasn't real.

According to new lawsuits, staff, patients, and even some police who responded had not been told it was just a drill.

Christina Hall is covering the fallout from that day for the Detroit Free Press. She joined Michigan Radio's Doug Tribou on Morning Edition.

DOUG TRIBOU: Northville is a small community on the border between Wayne and Oakland counties. You note that on a typical day, Hawthorn Center has about 50 inpatients and 200 staff members in the facility. This all happened at about 10:00 in the morning on Dec. 21. Can you paint a picture of the scene for us that morning?

The lawsuits say children and staff barricaded doors, called 911, texted loved ones, and armed themselves with whatever they could find, including hot coffee, brushes, and combs.

Christina Hall: There are actually two lawsuits that were filed: one against the state health department in the [Michigan] Court of Claims, and then a second one that was in Wayne County Circuit Court against four people who work there.

According to this, two announcements came through. And obviously after that, the workers and the inpatient children who were there went into what they believed was an active-shooter situation with employees trying to barricade themselves and children. Some of them were making 911 calls and then others were texting their loved ones, indicating that something was going on and some last personal messages because they were in belief that this was a real situation.

They were arming themselves, according to the lawsuits, with whatever weapons I guess they could find. Hot coffee, brushes, combs and the like.

DT: As you mentioned, four parents of patients and six employees of Hawthorn Center have filed two lawsuits, one against the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which owns and operates the center, another against several managers at the center. What are they claiming in those suits?

CH: Well, they're basically claiming that this drill happened and they were not informed prior to this that the drill was happening, that this was intended to be a drill, and they were inside, that they were terrified that they were traumatized by this.

Some of the folks who were employees, they immediately went into survival mode as to what they thought they should be doing to protect themselves and also the children who were there.

DT: And some families have said that their children were deeply affected by what they saw and what happened that day. What did they tell you?

CH: They're indicating in [the suit] that some of these children have been having issues since this happened, in terms of harming themselves, being more aggressive, suffering post-traumatic stress.

They were also talking about the employees also experiencing this. One of the employees, she had a great-nephew who was injured in the Oxford shooting and [his mother] also worked [at Oxford High School]. And so, she went into a panic attack, according to the litigation.

DT: Wow.

CH: So, you know, this was very, very stressful.

"[T]here were four law enforcement agencies that responded to this. They, too, it appears, did not have any advance warning about this."
Christina Hall, Detroit Free Press reporter

DT: We mentioned that about 250 people would have been in the building at the time of the drill on a typical day. Have other people outside the lawsuit expressed any concerns about that day?

CH: It sounds like there were four law enforcement agencies that responded to this. They, too, it appears, did not have any advance warning about this. And there was an investigation, I was told by Michigan State Police, and they sent the investigation over to the [state] attorney general's office, which is apparently reviewing this matter right now.

DT: MDHHS released a statement after your story was published. What did the department say about the drill?

CH: It said it understands that patients, staff, and community were affected by the incident, and it's working with law enforcement, including state police, on an improved active-intruder training and drill process as part of updating its emergency operations policy.

DT: What else are you going to be watching for in this case, Christina?

CH: There have been some situations across the country where we have had active-shooter drills that weren't really mentioned ahead of time to folks who are involved in the drill. And there was a gentleman I saw in Nebraska last year who was charged criminally. So I will be curious to see if there are any charges and if there's any more families or employees that want to [join] this litigation.

Further reading:

"It was a drill, not a real shooter. But no one told workers or children at youth hospital." By Christina Hall for the Detroit Free Press:

Editor's notes: Some quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Katheryne Friske is the weekend morning host and producer for All Things Considered.
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