OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — An employee of Catholic Charities of Omaha alleges in a lawsuit that she suffered emotional and physical injuries after an active shooting drill was staged at the organization’s headquarters last year.
Sandra Lopez said in the lawsuit that administrators did not warn her or other employees about the drill on May 19, 2022. One administrator who knew it was staged told her, “It is a shooting” as they ran out of the building together, according to the lawsuit.
Lopez said she first heard three loud bangs on the door of the office suite where she works and an administrator in the hallway shouted for people to get out of the building.
Lopez heard what she thought were gunshots and saw an employee on the ground outside the building, apparently severely wounded or dead, causing her to “fear for her life,” according to the lawsuit.
“The conduct of Catholic Charities caused Sandra Lopez emotional distress so severe that no reasonable person should be expected to endure it,” the lawsuit said.
Lopez’s attorney, Thomas White, said Monday that Catholic Charities intentionally injured Lopez and other employees by not informing them the drill was fake.
Denise Bartels, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Omaha, and the organization’s attorney, Heather Veik, did not immediately return phone messages and emails seeking comment on Monday.
Veik has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in January. A hearing is scheduled for March 14.
Ken Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, said in the past organizers of active shooter drills would not notify employees ahead of time because active shooters don’t give any warning.
But, he said, because of the “intense focus” on preparing for active shooters after several shootings, the thinking has changed to include such steps as training, tabletop exercises and other planning before having a live drill.
“It’s a balancing act,” Trump said. “Are we going to create more trauma, chaos, confusion and harm than we are doing good? Yes, we need to do training but what is the appropriate context? What steps have we taken leading up to a drill?”
Lopez has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is being treated for back pain she suffered when she jumped from a wall while she fled, according to the lawsuit.
Lopez, who still works at Catholic Charities, eventually ran to a nearby Scooter’s Coffee shop, where she called her son, Stephen Lopez, who picked her up.
When Stephen Lopez called John Hurter, chief of operations for the organization, to tell him his mother was safe, Hurter told him the “shooting” was just a drill.
When Stephen Lopez asked Hurter why employees were not warned, he replied, “We wanted to see how people reacted,” according to the lawsuit.
The man who was hired by Catholic Charities to stage the drill, John Channels, of Omaha, was charged in August with five counts of making terroristic threats and one weapons count. Channels is not named in the lawsuit.
When charges were filed, Bartels said Channels misrepresented himself and his qualifications, did not follow agreed upon procedures and didn’t communicate with law enforcement officers, the Omaha World-Herald previously reported.
According to a police arrest affidavit, Channels told Catholic Charities administrators that law enforcement officers would be present during the drill. But no officers were present for the drill and Omaha police have said they were not told about it beforehand.
Channels’ attorney, Erin Wetzel, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. She previously said that Channels, who owns a security business, provided written notice about the drill to Omaha police, the Nebraska State Patrol and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and was assured officers would be present.
Veik’s motion contends the matter should be decided in worker’s compensation court, not in Douglas County District Court.
White said that what happened to Lopez is different from most cases that go through worker’s compensation, which involves someone being hurt through negligence, rather than intentionally.
“That is the question in this case, would a jury believe that they intentionally harmed her,” White said. “We believe that’s what they intended and we’ll see what the results are.”