In the wake of the school-shooting tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office has planned an “active shooter” training exercise for area officers and deputies at the now vacant White Rock Elementary School in Gorham.

To make it more realistic for officers training to deal with a school shooting in progress, organizers invited student volunteers to participate and offered community service credit for those who do.

The exercise is scheduled for the school break week, Feb. 18-22.

This has raised questions about whether limits should be placed on student participation and on the ages of those participating in such exercises.

“My question is what potential risk is there to kids who participate in this,” said Martin Shuer, father of a Windham Middle School student. He asked whether the sheriff’s office or school department had considered the emotional impact on students before inviting them to participate.

Shuer, who ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat representing Windham, said he thinks it ironic that students would be asked to participate in police response training when his efforts to promote an anti gun-violence educational program for the schools have gained little traction.

Capt. Shawn O’Leary, head of training for the sheriff’s office, said offering students the opportunity to participate seemed a logical way to enhance the training for officers who would likely have to deal with a building full of students in a real school-shooting incident.

“The more realistic it is, the better it is for officers,” he said, adding that the officers would not be grabbing students or pushing them to the ground. “Unfortunately, in today’s society, you kind of have to have lockdown drills and you have to have your officers trained” for a school-shooting incident.

The invitation to volunteer required parental permission and, while not restricted to any particular age, was directed at high school students, he said. Some middle school students are participating, but most of them are children of officers involved in the training, he said.

Organizers had to stop taking volunteers because there were more than could be managed, he said. Plus, organizers are providing pizza for lunch.

The sheriff’s office had already planned department-wide training on general deadly and non-deadly force situations this year. But after the Connecticut shootings, the decision was made to focus instead on how to respond to a school shooting.

In the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle gunned down 20 young students and six educators before killing himself.

It will cost about $5,000 to run the five-day exercise for about 80 officers from Gorham, Windham and the county sheriff’s office.

Blanca Gurrola, vice president of clinical services for Community Counseling Center of Maine, said she would prefer to see adult volunteers play the role of students. But she is not convinced the exercise would aggravate student anxiety and said it might benefit students.

“If they want to participate and help support the police department training, kids may feel empowered,” she said.

Windham Superintendent Sandy Prince said students have participated in past drills with police and he does not feel it poses any risk.

“Sometimes your game is only as good as your practice. The more we involve police in drills before … that’s very much a good part of keeping the schools safe,” Prince said.

Prince said the Windham-Raymond district has conducted many in-school safety drills. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade have participated in lockdown drills, during which students stay in a particular location behind locked doors when an emergency is declared.

Determining what age limits to place on students participating in school-safety exercises such as lockdown drills is not an exact science.

Shannon Welsh, superintendent for RSU 5 in Freeport, Durham and Pownal, said the school has conducted a lockdown drill for the high school and is planning one for the middle school.

“Our district is looking at a very balanced approach,” she said. “We recognize the very safety and security of the kids is of the utmost importance. You also want an environment where kids are comfortable and welcome and families feel welcome,” she said.

Welsh said she is aware that some parents want more safety drills for younger students, and others want fewer.

“You want it to become similar to a fire drill in that their response would be automatic,” Welsh said. “I liken it to hiding under my desk as a little kid from nuclear warheads. There was no fear involved, just the drill.”

Gurrola, the mental health expert, said children can adapt.

“The reality is every child needs to be prepared,” she said. “It’s what language you use and how you teach the kids the skills you want.”

“We used to fly in this country before Sept. 11 without going through security. That event changed every single American life,” she said. “Unfortunately, these school shootings are changing the lives of the students in every school in the nation.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com