A mock crisis helps prepare for real one

School staff, students and police stage drama to test plan

Other schools may do same

Shootings elsewhere prompt educators to stress security

August 26, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

It could happen.

That assessment by participants in a mock hostage drama yesterday at Anne Arundel County's Chesapeake High School was the point of the exercise by role-playing police, educators, students and parents.

The script had two angry students armed with automatic rifles go on a shooting rampage though the halls of the Pasadena school, where about 1,700 students return to classes next week.

Police and school officials said they planned the three-hour exercise because they expect the best behavior from students but need to be prepared for the worst.

"This could easily happen. Easily," said Shawn Smith, 14, a freshman at Severna Park High who played a shooting victim who ran outside and survived. "If anyone brought a gun, this type of gun, into the school, 30 or 40 people would be dead in seconds."

After a spate of school shootings across the country -- including the April massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. -- worried school officials across the country have tightened security measures in an effort to reassure jittery students and parents.

"After Columbine, we were all looking over our shoulders," said Becky Truver, 16, a junior at Severna Park High whose role was at the center of the action, as one of the teen-age killers.

In Maryland, some jurisdictions have held drills, but Anne Arundel authorities were the first in the state to make theirs closer to reality by using students and an administrator to play themselves.

"We are coming here to see what works and what doesn't," said the police spokesman, Lt. Jeff Kelly.

County school officials said they might hold similar drills at other schools during the year and are considering new security measures.

"We are looking at a variety of things," said Kenneth Lawson, associate superintendent of instruction and student services, "cameras, additional security personnel, locks and having students as well as employees wear badges."

Yesterday was not only a test of police reactions, but also of the Pasadena school's emergency plan, which was developed by administrators during the last school year. After a rash of bomb threats, each school in the county was required to develop and turn in a plan to the school superintendent's office.

Although the players in yesterday's drill worked from a script, neither the students nor the police officers knew exactly what would happen until the event began to unfold.

Shawn and 14 other young people found themselves playing the parts of stranded students who were held at the mercy of two other armed students inside the school.

Police began the exercise with a call for help: "Shots fired, gunman in the school," was the message from the dispatcher that crackled over police radios.

Officer Alicia Timmins was the first to arrive.

"Radio, I got somebody standing at the door, with a white shirt and khaki pants," she said. "One student is down at the front door. I need more cars."

Timmins and fellow officers surrounded the school and waited for tactical officers to arrive.

Because those officers are on call and could be in any of a number of places around the county, it can take up to an hour for them to get to the scene.

The first officers had the job of securing the scene to contain the trouble and minimize casualties. The officers did not go into the school, where the trapped students were being held.

"The shooters came in and killed one boy and injured another right in front of us," said Kristi Truver, 13, an eighth-grader at Severna Park Middle School whose sister was one of the attackers. "It was scary even though we knew that it wasn't real."

It was also scary for those who played the shooters.

Armed with plastic rifles usually used at the police training academy, Becky and Ian Palko, an 18-year-old graduate of Broadneck High School, stormed into the school "shooting."

"It was terrifying," Becky said. "When all those cops came in, holding their shields up and screaming at me to drop the gun, I said `No.'"

Holding a fake knife to another student's neck, she pointed her gun at the officers.

"Then every single one of those cops shot at me," she said. The fake weapons flashed each time the officer pulled the trigger.

Ian turned his gun on himself, but the officers shot him first.

"It was a very humbling experience to know you are being hunted like that," he said.

The drill ended with the shooters' make-believe deaths. Police and school officials said they thought it went well but acknowledged a few flaws: The armored car used to bring tactical officers to the school broke down, and communication between some officers and victims was not perfect.

"But it did go well," said Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan. "All of our officers will be given in-service training like this. And we want officers to meet the principal of the schools in their district, stop by the school as often as they can and get to know it."

Pub Date: 8/26/99

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