School shooting simulations become more realistic after Sandy Hook

By Denise Jewell Gee

Students with fake wounds. Police with plastic guns. Pretend gunmen.

Schools districts preparing for the worst-case scenario aren’t just practicing lockdown drills and evacuations. Some are turning to an even more specific scenario – a shooter on the loose.

And administrators must decide how much involvement students should have in drills that mimic tragedies like those at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Columbine High School.

“It’s a little bit of a culture change, and not just here,” said Cuba-Rushford Superintendent Carlos Gildemeister. “All across the U.S.”

Last week, with students at Cuba-Rushford High School on break and the school empty, officers encountered volunteer students spattered with fake blood and pretend gunshot wounds.

All students at Clarence High School next week will be involved in a live simulation of a shooter entering the school during a drill with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the State Police.

Amherst police a few days later will practice evacuating students at Sweet Home Middle School and then, after students leave, will simulate a crisis situation.

In each case, the districts have taken a different approach to testing how well they would respond in a crisis.

At Cuba-Rushford, in Cattaraugus County, administrators last week opened the high school to local officers to run drills involving a gunman, but they chose to do it while the school was closed for spring break. The only students involved were volunteers from the local youth court program.

“If you were here, you would have seen the students, the victims, with pretend gunshot wounds,” Gildemeister said. “There was fake blood and gashes to their arms. It was more realistic and more gruesome, so we felt that it would be better to do it while kids are out.”

Administrators at Clarence High School had a different goal. They have been planning for months for a full-scale intruder drill intended not just to test the coordination between the district and local law enforcement agencies, but also to prepare students and faculty for what to do in a crisis. The planning began shortly after the Dec. 14 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., when many districts refocused efforts on school security.

Discussions with the community and with students in Clarence also began months ago.

“We want to make sure we are better prepared to face a real emergency,” said Clarence Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks. “We think it’s good for our student body to practice. We think it’s good for our staff to practice, and it will provide us information on where we can improve.”

Unlike Cuba-Rushford, Clarence officials do not expect the drill to be gruesome. Most students – following district procedures – will be locked in their classrooms and won’t see much. Sheriff’s deputies will use plastic guns that are bright blue to distinguish them as fake, and students who volunteer to act as victims are required to get parent permission.

The drill, scheduled for Wednesday morning at Clarence High School, will start with an assembly for all the school’s 1,600 students to explain the drill and school procedures. The students will return to their classes, and at some point during the morning, the school will launch a simulation with an officer posing as an armed intruder.

“One of the reasons that we’re doing this drill is to practice as close to real as you can get without harming anybody,” said Kenneth Smith, principal at Clarence High School, “and to be able to reflect after the simulation to make modifications to our plan so that we’re even more effective at taking care of our students and our faculty and staff.”

The school also is working with a local mental health association to prepare counselors to work with any students who might feel anxiety about the drill, Smith said.

Even basic exercises like fire and evacuation drills are getting upgrades in many schools.

Sweet Home Superintendent Anthony J. Day said schools now include unexpected changes – like blocking an exit during a fire drill – to get students and staff to think on the spot. They’ll also run drills during passing periods and lunch breaks.

“The emergency doesn’t know what time it is,” Day said. “So you have to be prepared for as many eventualities as you can.”

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