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In New School Drills, Students Dodge Bullets, Not Bombs

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"Duck and cover'' drills are being reintroduced in a few schools nationwide, but with a new, grim twist: Children are being taught to hide from bullets instead of atom bombs.

Schools in perhaps a dozen districts have started holding "bullet'' or "D.B.S.''--drive-by shooting--drills to prepare students for gunfire in classrooms or on school grounds, according to George Butterfield, the deputy director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake, Calif.

Ronald Stephens, the center's director, said it is impossible to know exactly how many schools or districts hold such drills. "It's unusual for people to admit that they're having them,'' he noted, because they fear negative publicity.

Bells Used as Signals'

Mr. Stephens said the drills are being implemented mainly in schools plagued by gang activity and drug-related violence.

They inlcude the Clyde Arbuckle Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., which is located in what its principal, Louis C. Henry, termed "a drug-infested community.''

"We have gangs, we have drugs of all kinds ... you name it, we got it,'' Mr. Henry observed.

For five years, the school has used bells rung in code to warn staff members and students of the possibility of a violent intruder or gunfire. Children also are taught that if a shooting occurs on the playground, they should not put themselves in the line of fire by running to the school; instead, they should drop down and cover themselves until an adult can come to their rescue.

Vaughn Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, located about a mile from the area where riots erupted last spring after the verdict in the Rodney King case, also has similar exercises.

Like Arbuckle, the school rings bells in code to alert teachers about shootings and other emergencies, such as fires or a toxic-waste spill on a nearby freeway.

The school takes other precautions against violence as well.

In 1990 its principal, Yvonne Chan, used a $5,000 "safe schools'' grant from the California education department to build a metal enclosure around the outdoor lunch area to shield children from gunfire. She also has equipped some of the school's employees with walkie-talkies so she can communicate with them in emergencies.

The violence in the neighborhood has filled Vaughn's students with a perpetual "sense of unpredictability,'' Ms. Chan said.

"Many of the children are kind of immune to this because they live in the area,'' she added. "When we hear sirens and the police come in all the time, the kids say, 'It's just another one of these, isn't it?'''

Many Know What To Do

The National School Safety Center reached the same conclusion when it recently published guidelines for bullet drills that it formulated after consulting with police and school officials that had developed policies.

In schools in high-crime areas, said Mr. Butterfield, the center found that students did not need to be taught how to react to gunfire.

"They've already learned that in their neighborhood,'' he explained. "It's not even like someone sat and said, 'What could we do if there are bullets flying around?' It's just a natural reaction by people who live in this situation.''

While other urban school districts such as Miami and Huntsville, Ala., do not have drills specifically geared toward gun-related violence, schools in these cities have instituted general drills to prepare for a wide variety of emergencies, ranging from bomb threats to violent intruders to natural disasters.

'Earthquake Drill'

Urban educators, however, are not alone in perceiving a need for gunfire drills.

At Fairfax Elementary School in Mentor, Ohio, for example, children are taught to take cover under their desks if they hear their teachers yell out "earthquake drill.''

Although the Cleveland suburb did experience a minor quake several years ago and teachers would use the warning should another occur, school officials adopted the drill policy and the euphemistic "Earthquake!'' call sign specifically with violent intruders in mind.

While such an attack may seem a remote possibility, Fairfax teachers proposed the procedure at a faculty meeting held shortly after a 1988 incident in which one child was killed and four wounded by an armed woman at a Winnetka, Ill., elementary school. The event reminded them that no school is immune from such a crisis, said Gayle Shaw Kramer, the school's principal.

"We don't make a big deal of it,'' Ms. Kramer said of the drills, which are held three times a year.

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