NORTHVILLE TOWNSHIP, Mich. – An employee who was instructed to walk through the Hawthorn Center during an unannounced active shooter drill is suing for the impact he said that traumatic experience has had on his life.
The Hawthorn Center is a state-run psychiatric hospital for children in Northville Township, Michigan. On Dec. 21, 2022, the center held an active shooter drill. Patients, and most of the staff, were not told that a drill would be conducted. Many people inside the center said they were terrified when an announcement came on the loudspeaker that active shooters were on the premises.
Even police had not been notified that a drill was taking place. According to documents, 911 calls came in reporting active shooters and 22 police officers rushed to the center. People inside the center were terrified and employees working at the center said it was chaos inside the building.
Body camera footage from police officers shows them rushing to the scene. Northville Township wasn’t the only department that responded -- Northville, Livonia and Michigan State Police also rushed there. When they arrived, officers quickly grabbed their tactical weapons and heavy gear.
Officers made contact with two people in front of the building. They told the officers that they were employees and that the “active shooter” situation was just a drill. The employees sprawled out on the ground until officers could confirm it was a drill.
The two people police made contact with outside the facility were Hawthorn Center employees who had been instructed to walk through the building during the drill. One of them, Brandon Woodruff, has filed a lawsuit against the state because of the impact he said this traumatic incident has had on his life.
--> Body cam video shows police response, panic in ‘active shooter’ drill at Michigan psych hospital for kids
Hawthorn Center employee files lawsuit
Woodruff started working at the Hawthorn Center in July 2022 as a laborer and assistant to the skilled trades workers.
On the morning of the drill, Woodruff was instructed by his supervisor, Derek Leppek, to join a white male colleague and walk through the facility while pretending to be intruders, according to the lawsuit. Leppek was the physical plant supervisor and safety coordinator. Leppek’s instruction was approved by hospital director Victoria Petti.
According to the lawsuit, Woodruff and his wife were expecting their first baby in early 2023 and he felt he was not in a position to say no to instruction from his supervisor. He was afraid of losing his job for refusing an order. However, Leppek had asked him to carry an object with him while he walked and he did not do that because he thought it sounded unusual.
Woodruff and his colleague were told to see if employees and children were properly barricaded during the drill. They were instructed to make sure every room was locked and that everyone was hidden and barricaded, and to note anyone who was not hidden or barricaded. The pair dressed in winter clothes, left the shop area and moved toward the main Hawthorn Center building. They did not have weapons.
‘Two active intruders . . . armed with AR-15s, shots fired’
According to the latest lawsuit, there were two announcements. The first stated that there were active intruders in the building and the speaker sounded afraid and panicked. The second announcement came through the overhead system and an employee said, “two active intruders, one Caucasian male, one African American male, armed with AR 15s, shots fired.”
The second announcement was believed to have been made by Leppek.
Woodruff did not know that the people in the building had not been warned of the drill, according to the lawsuit. When Woodruff and his colleague left the facility, they were met with police officers who had tactical weapons and heavy gear. The officers yelled at them to get down.
Woodruff reportedly got down on the ground, face down, and activated his smartwatch to call his wife, who recorded what she heard. According to the lawsuit, Woodruff feared for his life and wanted to make sure that his wife heard the last moments of his life.
“Woodruff did his best to comply with the anxious, sometimes conflicting orders from the police officers, getting down on the ground, then moving slowly towards them with his hands raised, and finally lifting his shirt and turning around several times to show that he was not armed,” the lawsuit stated.
According to the lawsuit, Woodruff was handcuffed with his hands behind his back and kept under police control for at least 30 minutes as police sorted out the situation.
The lawsuit said Petti released the following email to staff at 5:11 p.m. on the day of the drill: “This morning an active intruder alert was announced on the overhead system. Although this was a drill it was not announced as such. Understandably, many in the building became frightened and some contacted 911. A tactical team responded to these calls and arrived armed and in full gear. 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.”
Class-action lawsuits filed against state in March
The latest lawsuit comes less than a month after two class-action lawsuits were filed against the state. The lawsuit claims that the facility terrorized both its staff and patients during the drill.
“I couldn’t stop crying, tears rolling down my eyes, I couldn’t stop shaking, I was trembling uncontrollably,” one of the employees told Local 4. “It’s created anxiety, trouble sleeping. Every time this is mentioned, it’s like reliving the event.”
In Woodruff’s case, according to the lawsuit, he is still dealing with anxiety, fear, depression, and suicidal ideation. He has been unable to obtain treatment and has had to return to work. He experiences panic and anxiety attacks from having to return to the place where the traumatic even happened, the lawsuit says.
“The health and safety of our staff and patients is our top concern. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services understands that our patients, staff and community were affected by the incident in December. We commend our staff who worked quickly to engage law enforcement partners and the responding agencies who worked to resolve the situation. 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.”Lynn Sutfin, Michigan Department of Health & Human Services
Read more: Full coverage of the Hawthorn Center active shooter drill