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Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as Crisis Drills Make the Rounds, But Some Call It Overreaction

Crisis Drills Make the Rounds, But Some Call It Overreaction

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Most schools are fairly well-prepared for such natural disasters as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. But after last spring's rash of school shootings, many educators spent the summer months learning to fight a man-made problem.

In districts nationwide, educators have called on experts to teach them how to deal with gun-toting intruders.

Jesus Villahermosa Jr., a deputy sheriff from Pierce County, Wash., spent most of his free time this summer training educators to deal with violence on campus--something he has done for a decade.

Last month, in a packed elementary school auditorium in this rural northern California town, Mr. Villahermosa watched as a superintendent and a teacher demonstrated how to escape from a gunman by extending their arms and scooting backward toward an exit. "The people that live are the ones that move. The people that die are the ones that don't," he told the group.

But some juvenile-crime experts contend that such training sessions are a poor use of education dollars and an overreaction to what are still extremely rare incidents. For example, more than twice as many people in the United States were killed by lightning last year as by gunfire at schools.

But shooting drills such as the one Mr. Villahermosa conducted here are one of the hottest professional-development activities in education these days, even in districts that are virtually untouched by violent crime.("Violence-Prevention Guide, Drills Follow Year of Shootings," July 8, 1998.)

  • In Grand Prairie, Texas, several employees of the 19,000-student district participated in a mock hostage-taking orchestrated by local police officers in June. During the three-hour drill at a middle school, an officer camouflaged as an armed assailant held staff members in the library until they were "rescued."
  • In Munster, Ind., experts from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms instructed officials from several local districts on how to identify a bomb and how to secure a building if confronted with an armed interloper.
  • On the state level, Alaska, Kentucky, and Washington held school safety summits during the summer to talk about crisis management.

School administrators here in Sonora calculate that Mr. Villahermosa's $1,700 fee for the all-day course is a worthwhile investment--even though the last crime wave to hit these dusty towns in the foothills of the Sierras was when gold prospectors waged gunfights and ambushes over a century ago.

"It's an insurance policy," said Michael King, the superintendent of the 1,650-student Sonora Union High School District, the largest of the 12 area districts that attended the training. "Springfield, Oregon, is very much a rural community like us," said Mr. King, referring to the high school shooting last May in which two students died and nearly two dozen were injured. He noted that most shooting incidents in the past school year occurred in rural districts such as Sonora where gun ownership and hunting are common. "If it can happen there, it can happen here," he said. ("Two Students Die, 22 Injured In Ore. Rampage," May 27, 1998. )


Back in the school auditorium, Mr. Villahermosa is asking the 80 teachers, administrators, school security workers, and local law-enforcement officials to visualize "a bad day": It's a normal afternoon, when suddenly an angry person carrying a handgun walks into the principal's office. If, after trying to talk the intruder into putting down his weapon, the person becomes more agitated, staff members should calmly back away, call the police, and proceed with the campus lock-down drill.

Plucking volunteers from the audience, Mr. Villahermosa delineates a series of steps to defuse the crisis:

  • Someone should announce over the school's public-address system that a lock-down is necessary and that all classrooms should be secured immediately.
  • Staff members should then direct all students into the nearest classroom, shut all the blinds, huddle the children on the floor, and keep them quiet. With the halls cleared, the police can more easily pinpoint the location of the suspect.

"The cops are never going to get there fast enough," Mr. Villahermosa said, noting that most of the assailants in last year's spate of school shootings discharged their weapons in a matter of minutes. A campus lock-down is meant to minimize the possible targets, he said.

During a break, David Caya, an 8th grade teacher here, said the worst incident he's ever experienced was a student hitting another on the head with a skateboard. But he said he sees students becoming more rebellious and is concerned that violence could erupt at any time. "There's a certain amount of kids that are dying for attention," Mr. Caya said.

Overreaction Seen

But Vincent Schiraldi, the director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based research and policy group, called the new brand of safety drills a waste of district dollars.

Mr. Schiraldi said the "moral panic" that has propelled schools to hire such trainers is based on a fallacy that violent deaths, including school shootings, are becoming more prevalent. In fact, 40 violent deaths--including stabbings, homicides, and suicides--occurred at schools last school year. That was a 27 percent decline from 1992-93, when there were 55 violent deaths at schools, according to the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

"Schools are not the locus of killing in America, and it's tragic that a school that has never had a shooting by a kid is going to spend considerable training dollars on this," Mr. Schiraldi said. Increasing the ranks of counselors and adding conflict-resolution classes would be a far better investment, he said. Restricting gun sales to less than one purchase a month also could have a significant impact, Mr. Schiraldi argued, because adults who sell guns illegally to youths generally buy in bulk and such laws would limit their purchasing power.

Other experts say that the underlying psychological problems that impel students or adults to pull the trigger in the first place need to be addressed.

"Administrators are constantly faced with the need to answer the question: 'What did you do to prevent it?'" said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators.

Mr. Marx said a school safety guide released last month by the Clinton administration can be useful in identifying early warning signs of student violence. In most of the recent school shootings, the attacker told someone what he planned to do, and recognizing those signals in time is often a school's best defense, the report says.

Untrained Trainers?

Another problem with drills, one school safety expert says, is that some people with little background in fighting school crime are joining the fairly lucrative school safety lecture circuit.

"Prepare for the attack of the charlatans--the overnight experts are popping out of the walls," said Kenneth Trump, the director of the National School Safety Alliance, a Cleveland-based organization of school safety officers, and a former security officer with the Cleveland schools who has conducted security training for more than a decade.

Some school safety training is led by people who have long-standing relationships with schools, like Mr. Villahermosa. But Mr. Trump worries about "ex-FBI agents or retired police captains" who have never worked with juveniles but who may be drawn by school consulting fees that can run as high as $2,500 a day.

Even if a community spends the money for crisis-drill training, the entire school community must learn the procedures and hold regular rehearsals to make such procedures as routine as fire drills, Mr. Villahermosa said. The Sonora High School District board, for example, voted last week to approve an updated disaster plan that would include lock-down drills, and the district has scheduled additional training for staff members.

But countywide coordination would be difficult, said Carleton Wade, a mental-health counselor in the Sonora schools who attended last month's workshop.

"People move here because there's less crime and violence, and then they're told they have to take precautions against it," he said. "I'm not sure people are going to take this seriously."

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Pages 1,22-23

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