How realistic should school shooting drills be?

"I want to see my kids! Bang! Bang!" the man shouted as he stormed into the front office of a South Carolina elementary 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 911, 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 at Howe Hall Howe Hall Arts-Infused Magnet School in Goose Creek, S.C. 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 schools today. While the end of the Cold War removed the duck-and-cover exercises that had students crouching beneath desks under threat of an atomic bomb, the intent is the same: to protect against the unimaginable. 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 Howe Hall intruder drill.

Most states started to require school emergency management plans after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., though the types of 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.

St. Bernard School in New Washington, Ohio, was eerily quiet as the police chief and principal walked the halls checking doors during a January lockdown drill on the one-month anniversary of Newtown. The children sat cross-legged in darkened coat closets before returning to their lessons.

In the upstate New York town of Hudson Falls, police in body armor carried unloaded weapons and negotiated with an acting hostage-taker Monday during a drill at an elementary school, including younger students, in what had been a middle- and high-school exercise before December's shooting of 20 first-graders and six adults in Newtown, Conn.

On Wednesday, an intruder drill at Cary-Grove High 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, which involved fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, 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.

"We don't need to teach kids to attack armed intruders by throwing pencils and books at a gunman or to have a SWAT team at the kindergarten doors, but it's not unreasonable for school leaders to make sure that students, teachers and support staff know what to do in an emergency," he said.

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 at Howe Hall, 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."

The Howe Hall exercise ended in a flurry of fake gunfire created by officers yelling "bang-bang-bang" and a "suspect's down" radio dispatch.

"Unfortunately, it's a sign of the times," said principal Christopher Swetckie. Pupils are told it's like hide-and-seek, he said, and a placard system is used to notify law enforcement

if there is an injured person in the room.

"I hate that in this day and age that you have to prepare for these types of events," he said.

Brandee Davidson said she didn't talk much with her daughters about their school's drill in October. But two months later, after Newtown, it suddenly left the realm of routine.

"We sat down and said it's important that if they ever have another intruder drill, please make sure they do whatever their teacher says because their teacher will keep them safe," she said.

She 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."

"I've rarely seen anyone reach for the plan in the middle of a crisis," Stephens said. "They have to know it."

Trump concurred, recommending 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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