Hawthorn Center employee tapped to roleplay active shooter in unannounced drill sues
In lawsuits filed Friday, Woodruff’s attorneys state the drill was only announced to supervisors in advance with strict instructions not to inform subordinate employees or children.
Provided by the Northville Township Department of Public Safety
Brandon Woodruff said he has participated in a couple of drills during his employment as a laborer at Hawthorn Center, a youth psychiatric hospital in Northville Township that cares for some of the most vulnerable children in Michigan.
Fire and tornado drills.
But the drill in which he said he was tapped to participate four days before Christmas was unlike any he had done before: an active shooter drill in which he was one of two employees cast in the role of shooter. A drill during which frightened workers called 911, heavily armed officers responded and Woodruff found himself handcuffed and detained.
“It’s really a struggle for me to come there every day,” Woodruff said of his job at the center, but adds that he needs the work and benefits to support his family and new baby daughter.
Panic, fear and officers in tactical gear
The 32-year-old said he was tapped by his supervisor toward the end of a morning break and minutes before the Dec. 21 drill to walk around the school and make sure people were doing things they were supposed to be doing in response. He was not armed, but fit the general description of one of two shooters that was read over the center’s public address system.
Woodruff recalled his experience in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, last week, saying hearing about this “kind of threw me off guard that we was having a drill, because I wasn’t, like, prepared.”
But many at the center didn’t know about the unannounced drill ahead of time, according to attorneys representing a half-dozen employees, two sets of parents of children who were patients at the center at the time — and now, Woodruff — in civil lawsuits.
In lawsuits filed Friday, Woodruff’s attorneys state the drill was announced only to supervisors in advance, with strict instructions not to inform subordinate employees or children. On a typical weekday morning, about 50 children and 200 staff are at the center, they said.
Lawsuits have been filed against the state health department in the Michigan Court of Claims and, in Wayne County Circuit Court, against four officials at the center: the hospital director; director of training and data improvement; physical plant supervisor and safety coordinator, and human resources manager and case manager.
The complaints allege the four planned the drill or agreed to it, bringing what attorneys described as panic and fear and heavily armed police officers to the facility.
Northville Township Police said in a December news release that they responded to the center’s “surprise drill.”
People inside the facility called 911 to report what they heard on an announcement — two intruders with AR-15s. Responding officers donned tactical gear, initially unaware the situation was a drill, according to 911 calls and body camera video obtained by the Free Press under the Freedom of Information Act.
An announcement at the facility that the drill was cleared was made after police arrived and a few officers spoke with hospital personnel, including the director, to determine the situation was a drill, according to police body camera audio.
‘I’m so scared’
Woodruff, of Oakland County, is the latest employee to file lawsuits in response to the drill. At least a dozen other employees have reached out to attorneys representing him and other workers in two lawsuits, attorney Robin Wagner said.
Like other employees in the other lawsuits, attorneys said Woodruff has been traumatized by his experience and denied mental health treatment as well as paternity time after the birth of his child.
He recalled an announcement on the facility’s public address system — active shooters in winter garb, one white male, one Black male, both with AR-15s — after he was given instructions to walk through the building.
Woodruff, who is Black, said he carried nothing and had no weapon.
He remembered one woman sprinting “like she ran for her dear life.” He said he and his white co-worker, wearing winter clothing, took 10 to 15 minutes to go through the building, splitting up once they got to the living areas, and meeting up again.
“It was one particular room that drew me off guard, and I was on one of the living areas. It was the way it was barricaded” with mattresses and chairs, said Woodruff.
“I had an uneasy feeling, like maybe these kids think this is real. I’m gonna like leave them alone in this area. They probably a little scared and not know what’s going on. So, I just left that area and just continued.”
Some inside thought the drill was real and called 911 or texted loved ones.
One woman whispered during her 911 call, asking a dispatcher, “Are the police here?” When the dispatcher said officers were checking things out, the caller said, “Please, please, please, help me.” The dispatcher told her to stay calm and that he was there with her.
“I’m so scared,” she whispered.
Shootings, lockdowns, anxiety: Here’s what kids say about mental health, helping each other
Meanwhile, Woodruff, who had worked at the center five months at the time of the drill, said he didn’t hear anything on his radio, and he had no idea police were there until he and his co-worker walked outside.
“I’m hearing yelling, ‘Get down’ … and I’m like I don’t know what the hell’s happening,” Woodruff recalled. “The police is here. Why are they here?”
Woodruff said he “1,000%” got down “on the middle of the ramp, on the concrete, hands out.” He said he was behind a Dumpster. He didn’t want to reach for anything; but managed to call his pregnant wife on his Apple watch and told her to record and be quiet.
“I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on,” Woodruff recalled, pausing briefly when describing what happened that day.
Attorneys said at least 50 officers showed up from Northville Township, the cities of Northville and Livonia, and Michigan State Police.
In his lawsuit, Woodruff’s attorneys say he “heard the safeties come off the police officers’ weapons. Mr. Woodruff was scared for his life.”
Woodruff followed police instructions, walking toward officers with his hands up. He lifted his shirt and turned around to show them he didn’t have any weapons. He was handcuffed, with his wrists behind his back. He and his role-playing co-worker, who also was handcuffed, were escorted to the front of the building and sat on a bench.
He said they were handcuffed at least 30 minutes.
Anxiety, fear and depression
Once police confirmed the situation was a drill, Woodruff was released. He said he went home and returned to work the next day, but then left early, saying it was odd and he didn’t feel comfortable.
Woodruff said initially the provided counseling wasn’t useful. He said he received an apology from his supervisor, which he described as “half-assed,” but said no one in administration apologized to him.
Attorneys stated in the lawsuits that the hospital director emailed staff at 5:11 p.m. Dec. 21 about the “active intruder alert” that was announced that morning, saying “although it was a drill, it was not announced as such. Understandably, many in the building became frightened and some contacted 911.”
She continued, according to the lawsuits: “I want to convey how deeply sorry I am that this occurred and for the stress it’s caused. I spoke with many of you today and hope to reach others in the next few days. I know this has touched you all in different ways …”
Attorneys for Woodruff said in his lawsuit “being ‘touched’ does not begin to describe Mr. Woodruff’s response to this incident.” The lawsuits say he has suffered “anxiety, fear, depression and even suicidal ideation in the days, weeks and months since this incident.”
They said he missed work at times over distress from the drill, and as a result of taking time and a miscalculation from the state on military service credit, Woodruff was told he didn’t qualify — by less than a day’s work — for parental leave when his baby was born in February.
His attorneys also said in March he was denied a request for mental health treatment. Woodruff said his attorneys are working to help him get mental health care.
Michigan Attorney General’s Office review ongoing
The state health department, which owns the center and is expected to raze it this year for a new, $325 million inpatient psychiatric hospital to be completed in 2026, issued a statement after the class-action lawsuits were filed earlier this month.
It stated that it understood that “patients, staff and community were affected by the incident in December.”
“The Joint Commission requires the state psychiatric hospitals conduct a hazard vulnerability analysis at least every two years to identify potential emergencies, including active shooter drills. MDHHS is working with township law enforcement and the Michigan State Police on an improved active intruder training and drill process as part of updating its emergency operations policy,” it stated.
Assistant attorneys general have filed to represent the state health department and four center officials in the class-action lawsuits. Wagner, who is representing Woodruff, other workers and two sets of parents, said the Attorney General’s Office was made aware of the new lawsuits filed by Woodruff.
The Attorney General’s Office said late Monday night that it is legal counsel for the state health department in the civil matter and “we would encourage you to direct any questions to (the state health department) directly.”
When reached for comment Tuesday, state health department spokesperson Lynn Sutfin referred to the agency’s previous statement.
State police investigated the matter. The review for potential charging decisions by the Attorney General’s Office is ongoing.
Danny Wimmer, press secretary for the AG’s Office, said May 5 that he could not provide an estimate on how long it would take to complete the review.
Wagner said her client, Woodruff, hasn’t been contacted as part of any investigation.
Woodruff said that since the incident, he has been treated differently.
“There was no transparency about the aftermath of this,” he said. “I feel they don’t care about what happened and they’re trying to minimize it and sweep it under the rug ‘cuz they know we are about to leave this building.”
Contact Christina Hall: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.
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