SecurityA Fake School Shooting to Train US Police Officers
Gunshots in a classroom and cries of students covered in blood, while officers try to apprehend the author of the shots. In a school in Florida, the scene serves as an exercise.
A hundred police officers and first-aid workers took part this week in Florida in training intended to make them more effective in the event of a shooter’s intrusion into a school building. This type of very realistic exercise – with fake injuries, plastic weapons and student volunteers – has existed for a few years on a marginal basis in the United States, but has experienced a resurgence of interest since the police fiasco of May 24, in a school in the Texas.
That day, a young man, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, killed 19 children and two teachers. The 400 agents had waited 73 minutes before entering the classroom where the killer had taken refuge with his victims, a “chaotic” response according to local elected officials.
In Miami, “our rule is that the first policeman who arrives on the scene makes contact with the shooter,” explains Carlos Fernandez, of the district school police. “Everything is done to save lives.” Most American police forces today take the same approach, but that has not always been the case. Until the attack on Columbine High School in 1999 (13 dead), the norm was to wait for the arrival of elite units, notes Major Fernandez.
Thirty student volunteers
As part of the exercise in Hialeah, in the suburbs of Miami, the assailant is neutralized three minutes after the first shots – all fired blanks. Springing from cars parked in the street, reinforcements come running into the establishment and search one by one the classrooms and the toilets. Once the checks are complete, the firefighters in turn enter the building to evacuate the “wounded”, four students covered in fake blood who pretend to have been hit.
On this summer day, in the middle of the school holidays, around 30 teenagers volunteered to help the police and firefighters train. For the rest of the year, public school students in 40 of the 50 U.S. states are required to participate in “intrusion alert” drills, which most often involve barricading themselves in silence.
Stress and anxiety increase
In a country that regularly faces deadly shootings, these drills are meant to help them stay calm in the face of the worst. Some fear, however, that they do more harm than good. Everytown for Gun Safety, an association that campaigns for stricter regulations on firearms, studied last year the conversations on social networks of students from 114 schools, 90 days before an exercise and 90 days after. She concluded that the simulation had increased the children’s stress, anxiety and depressive feelings.
Containment exercises are “already scary”, but simulated intrusions that resemble real killings “are much worse”, adds the NGO Sandy Hook Promise, created by parents of children killed in a Connecticut school, in 2012. “When the students do a fire drill, we don’t simulate a fire, because that would traumatize the participants and put the school in danger. It should be the same to counter the risk of intrusion,” she said.
In fact, these drills are meant to train police officers, not students, and it’s critical that they be realistic, says Miami-Dade District School Police Chief Edwin Lopez. “Our goal is to make the agents as nervous as possible. And that involves student screams, fire alarms going off, smoke, noise, or real gunfire,” he explained after the drill in Hialeah.
As for those for whom these simulations could give ideas to unstable students, Edwin Lopez assures that he sees “no risk”. On the contrary, he says, it shows “anyone thinking about harming our schools, our children, the exact level of force we are going to use against them.”