Schools Struggle for Middle Ground on Safety
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
It's a school principal's nightmare, an attack by an armed intruder. In the two months since school shootings in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, school districts across the country have tried to figure out how to prepare for the worst. Principals and superintendents are experimenting with realistic drills and training for aggressive responses. NPR's Phyllis Fletcher reports.
PHYLLIS FLETCHER: How far would you go to keep kids safe at school?
(Soundbite of training video)
Unidentified Man: Oh my gosh, what happened?
FLETCHER: This is a video from a training session that simulates gunfire and critical wounds.
(Soundbite of training video)
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)
FLETCHER: The video clip is produced by Response Options. It's a Dallas-based company that sells training packages to schools to help them prepare for an armed intruder. Response Options teaches kids 13 and older to fight back against gunmen. One Texas district just dropped its program with the company, but a Response Options spokesman says other districts are interested.
Here's another option. Police descend on your child's school with guns and pretend they're after an intruder while school is in session.
Mr. JACK WALLINGTON (Superintendent, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools): We tried to run a drill that was as realistic as possible so that, you know, we could get a good take on what safety procedures we needed to improve upon.
FLETCHER: That's Jack Wallington. He's superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in Wyoming, Michigan, near Grand Rapids. Wallington does not believe in teaching kids to fight intruders, but he does want to find out what would happen if his middle and high school were in lockdown and police came to look for a gunman. In October, he worked with the police department to develop a drill.
Someone at the school announced a Code Red. Classrooms went into lockdown. Police came to the school with guns and simulated a search. The guns weren't loaded. Teachers were told in advance, but students didn't know it was just a drill. Neither did parents.
Ms. MARGE BRADSHAW (Parent): They went around shaking the doors. Some of the students, they had wet their pants. Then I had found out that students had to lay down on the floor or stand up for 40 minutes.
FLETCHER: That's Marge Bradshaw. Her four kids go to the school where the drill happened. She was upset when she heard how realistic it was. She's open to training kids on what to do, maybe even teaching them to fight back, but she doesn't see why the school decided to do an unannounced drill with police.
Ms. BRADSHAW: They could've said, well, how about if we give the kids a test. We'll get the kids prepared, having them watch movies, showing the kids in a different way.
FLETCHER: But Wallington says the drill taught him some valuable lessons. Some kids strayed from their classrooms when they should've stayed put. In a real situation, that could've been deadly. He says he might not do the drill again this way, but he isn't sorry he did it.
Mr. WALLINGTON: We're doing whatever we can to make sure kids are as safe as possible, and I don't know where the middle ground is. You know, are you doing too much or not enough? Or how do you locate that middle ground?
FLETCHER: Bill Bond says there's no easy answer. He was a high school principal in West Paducah, Kentucky in 1997, when some of his students were gunned down in front of him. Now Bond is a consultant with the National School Safety Center. When a school shooting happens, he flies there to help the principal. He says it's important for schools to practice what to do if someone comes to their school and opens fire. When principals ask him how realistic to make their drills...
Mr. BILL BOND (Consultant, National School Safety Center): You've got to balance the benefit against the emotional discomfort. If there's a reason to bring the police into the building to coordinate the movements, what's that reason? What's that rationale? How's that going to benefit? There's not a perfect answer that one size fits all in practicing a drill.
FLETCHER: Superintendent Wallington says only a few parents complained to him. He says most parents and students understood why he conducted the drill unannounced.
Mr. WALLINGTON: It's more realistic that way, and they tend to react the way that they would hopefully react in a real emergency situation and know what to do in a real emergency situation.
FLETCHER: Something most parents would probably rather not think about, especially in a small town like Wyoming, Michigan. But Wallington can list several small towns where school shootings have happened, ending with Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where five girls were killed just two months ago.
Phyllis Fletcher, NPR News.
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