By Carolyn Thompson
HUDSON FALLS, N.Y. — "I want to see my kids! Bang! Bang!" the man shouted as he stormed into the front office of a U.S. school and pointed a handgun at a secretary and custodian. Both went limp at the verbal gunshots, and the "shooter," a police officer taking part in a school safety drill, continued his rampage.
While an assistant principal dialed police, the gunman took aim at two students and their principal. All fell to the floor with bloody, fake wounds.
"We are in lockdown," announced a woman over the public address system. Students and teachers hunkered silently in darkened classrooms away from closed blinds and locked doors, while police officers with rifles worked their way through hallways decorated with student art.
This is the extent to which safety is being practiced in U.S. schools today, and especially after the December shooting at a Connecticut school left 20 young children and six adults dead. But not all experts agree on how realistic the exercises need to be.
"It's kind of scary. At least the kids know they're preparing for it," said parent Brandee Davidson, whose 6- and 10-year-old daughters took part in the South Carolina intruder drill.
Most states started to require school emergency management plans after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, though the scenarios and preparation vary widely, according to data compiled by the Education Commission of the States, which tracks state policy trends.
North Dakota, for example, added lockdown drills to the required fire, tornado and other disaster drills in 2011, while Minnesota has required at least five yearly lockdown drills since 2006.
Various districts in Illinois, Tennessee, North Carolina and Washington are among those that have used mock shooters to heighten the reality.
In the New York state town of Hudson Falls, police in body armor carried unloaded weapons and negotiated with an acting hostage-taker Monday during a drill at a school, including younger students.
On Wednesday, an intruder drill at a school in Illinois featured a blank fired from a starter pistol.
Rather than frighten, the drills are intended to reassure students and their parents that everyone in the school would know what to do in an emergency, administrators and safety experts said.
A study in the School Psychology Review examined the effects of crisis drills on students and found that they increased their knowledge of what to do — but not their anxiety levels or perceptions of safety.
The 2007 study measured reactions after a relatively calm lockdown drill that didn't use guns and props, co-author Amanda Nickerson said Wednesday. She's not convinced extreme realism would yield the same results.
"I don't think that's necessary, and I would think it could raise people's anxiety unnecessarily," said Nickerson, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University at Buffalo.
Lockdowns and evacuations can be explained in a manner that does not create fear and panic, said consultant Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services.
Brandee Davidson's 10-year-old said she and her classmates were startled when two police officers burst through the door with guns at the October exercise in South Carolina, even though they were told about the lockdown drill in advance.
"Whoa, we did not expect that at all," Rylee Davidson said during a phone interview with her mother's consent. "It was kind of scary."
Her 6-year-old sister, Harper, said that she "was a little nervous" when she saw the fake wounds on the boys who were part of the drill, but that both she and her sister got the point: "So we would know what to do if it really happened, if an intruder came to our school."
"Unfortunately, it's a sign of the times," said principal Christopher Swetckie. Pupils are told it's like hide-and-seek, he said.
"I hate that in this day and age that you have to prepare for these types of events," he said.
Brandee Davidson said she believes every school should have such run-throughs.
"On the one hand, you don't want to scare the children," said Dr. Ronald Stephens, who advises districts as executive director of the National School Safety Center, "but many things you would do for a fire drill would be consistent with what would be done for a crisis drill."
Trump recommended that lockdowns be practiced at least twice a year at different times during the day.
"School crisis plans that sit upon a shelf," he said, "are not worth the paper they are written upon."
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Copyright 2013 Associated Press