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School shooting simulations become more realistic after Sandy Hook

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 Allegany 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.”

Drills are “essential” to prepare students, teachers and officers for what they might expect in a crisis, said Amanda B. Nickerson, an associate professor of school psychology at the University at Buffalo. But she cautions districts about the language they use to describe potential threats and recommends schools start with discussions about crisis plans and emergency procedures long before building up to full-scale intruder drills that simulate “extremely rare” events.

For example, she prefers that districts refrain from using the term “active shooter drill” and instead call them “intruder drills.”

“We can’t bury our heads in the sand and say it will never happen,” said Nickerson, who has done research on school violence prevention and is director of UB’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention. “But I think when we make it seem like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really an active threat,’ I don’t know how helpful that is.”

The Amherst Police Department and other emergency agencies will practice responding to a crisis scenario at Sweet Home Middle School next Friday, but students will be involved only in an early portion of the drill, when they will practice lockdown and evacuation procedures. Once the students are gone, officers and faculty will begin the full-scale drill, said Amherst Police Capt. Michael J. Camilleri.

Amherst police conducted a similar drill at Amherst Central High School in 2008.

Day said administrators felt middle school-age students did not need to be involved in the entire drill at Sweet Home.

“As a parent of a middle school student, I don’t feel it would be appropriate to have that level of stress in place when the kids are in the school,” Day said. “I think we can get the benefit of the drill without having to put the kids through it, so we have to take that into account. At the high school level, it might be different.”

It’s not just schools that are preparing for crisis. Cheektowaga Police Chief David Zack said his department tries to conduct at least one major drill a year in schools or in places like Walden Galleria mall. But security preparations, he said, have to go beyond physical training. During a recent community forum on school safety, he urged parents to learn to identify the potential warning signs of a troubled student.

“There are many, many warning signs and predictors of behavior,” Zack said. “More often than not, these active shooters were on someone’s radar well before they acted out.”

Nickerson, director of UB’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, said crisis prevention and intervention should be focused on a “full continuum, from prevention to preparedness, to what are we going to do to respond and intervene.”

“One of the best things we can do in terms of prevention is create the kinds of relationships in our schools where students who are concerned about a threat will report it to adults or the proper authorities,” Nickerson said. “We know that the school shootings that have been thwarted have been because someone has stepped up and said something about it.”

News Staff Reporter Matt Glynn contributed to this report. email: