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Duchnowski: Safety concerns spur dramatic drills

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

A report of a high school administrator shooting blanks in a school so students learn the sound of gunfire caught my attention last week.

My initial thought when hearing that Cary-Grove High School in Cary was planning to include that in a “Code Red” drill was: Why do students really need to recognize that sound? My second thought was: I’m glad enough of these high school students don’t have experience with gunfire that officials think this could be useful.

It’s an interesting concept, perhaps an overreaction to public shootings, but it’s not likely to harm anyone. The way Cary-Grove school officials structured the drill, no students actually saw a “shooter” or a gun.

Our sister publication, the Northwest Herald, described the drill that started about 9 a.m. Jan. 30. Teachers locked and barricaded doors. Students sat against the wall in the dark and heard what one student described as a muffled crack. In reality, two school deans stood in different wings of the school, and each fired a blank. It was the first lockdown drill the school hosted that involved students, although officials had done them for years with teachers.

The Northwest Herald reported some parents were upset about the gunfire before the drill, but absences because of it were minimal.

Readers on the Daily Chronicle’s Facebook page had mixed responses. Some worried the experience would traumatize students, others thought that familiarizing students with what a gunshot sounds like could help them react faster to a threat.

DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery isn’t sold, though. He said DeKalb’s training officer and school resource officers are working with DeKalb School District 428 officials to partner for on-site training, but he doesn’t plan to use blank ammo.

“Currently, we direct our officers to make their presence known by being at or near schools when they open, during the day when feasible, and at the close of school to show support and let our presence be known,” Lowery said in an email. “We also encourage our officers to interact with the students of District 428 in a positive manner by talking with them and taking every opportunity to get to know them so they too see the positive side of the police.”

In Sycamore, school officials are reviewing the new types of drills that have surfaced since the Newtown, Conn., shooting, Sycamore School District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman said.

“Our crisis team is reviewing any that might be of benefit and would add to our current procedures,” Countryman wrote in an email.

I was in high school in Michigan when the Columbine High School shootings happened, and in college at the University of Illinois during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. I remember the media coverage of both tragedies and discussions of school security. I don’t remember participating in any safety drills, though. Surfing the Internet, I found a photograph of an air raid drill Dec. 7, 1950, at Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., on a website for the Oregon History Project at ohs.org.

The photograph shows students lying facedown in the school hallway, their heads resting near lockers and covered with their arms. They were doing this to prepare for a potential nuclear attack after the Soviet Union successfully detonated an atomic bomb in August 1949, the website stated.

That photograph might serve as a reminder that while the perceived dangers change, our urge to protect schoolchildren does not. Let’s hope our local officials will have the foresight to implement procedures that adequately prepare students and make them and their families feel safe – and that they never need to use the information the drills emphasize.

• Jillian Duchnowski is the news editor at the Daily Chronicle. Reach her at 815-756-4841, ext. 2221, email jduchnowski@shawmedia.com or follow her on Twitter @JillianDuch.

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