June 18, 2007 12:00 PM

For a moment, after hearing the news that a gunman was shooting kids at her school—seventh-grader Heather White froze. But then her training kicked in. She and her classmates “started looking for stuff to pick up, to defend ourselves in case someone came in,” says Heather, 13. She grabbed a shovel left in her portable classroom and waited. It was only when she saw other students assembling outside, signaling that the danger had passed, that Heather put down her weapon.

Luckily, none of it was real. The staged carnage was part of a drill conducted April 30 by a police SWAT unit in Pine Bluff, Ark.—and a practice run for the 103 students at St. Joseph Catholic School. Last January they took a course designed by Response Options, a Burleson, Texas-based company run by former military and SWAT instructors. The three-hour session taught students first aid, evacuation procedures and even how to attack the shooter with books, staplers and shoes. “It taught us to do something,” says junior Timothy Ogg, 17, who helped younger kids hunker down in the school’s computer lab and barricade the door during the SWAT drill. “Most kids my age are old enough to remember [massacres at] Columbine and Jonesboro [Ark.]. During the training we were told that could happen here.”

Post-Virginia Tech, school districts across the country are facing the same cold realization. And a small number are signing on for Response Options’ proactive training. Since January the company, which formed in 2000, has guided nearly two dozen schools through its course at a cost of up to $10 per participant (St. Joseph paid $2,500) and will visit 15 more starting in August. “Everybody would like to think that there is a button you can push and a SWAT team would fall from the sky,” says Response Options co-founder Greg Crane. “The reality is, even if that were so, it still wouldn’t be fast enough to prevent a tragedy.”

Critics, though, say some efforts to prepare students go too far. Most schools, say child safety experts, practice defense measures like evacuation and lockdowns, and some utilize metal detectors and surveillance cameras—but stop short of simulating a massacre or training kids to fight back. “Attacking a gunman might incite him to begin firing, when otherwise he might not,” says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. Atlanta child psychologist Carol Raines Drummond, while not objecting to the St. Joseph SWAT drill, says that students must be properly debriefed after such run-throughs, or “it could trigger nightmares.” And Mary Margaret Phillips, a teacher at the Memphis Catholic school Immaculate Conception, which regularly practices its lockdown procedure, says she’s glad her school doesn’t stage mock shootings: “There are ways to spend money on security without scaring children.”

Crane says attacking (which isn’t taught to elementary school-age children) is an option only if you can’t run away. He claims that most victims in previous school shootings were passive, allowing shooters to easily pick them off. “Prevention is great, but you have to do something more,” he says. The proactive approach appealed to Rhonda Sizemore, whose son Winston, 15, is a freshman at St. Joseph. After seeing Response Options on television, she urged the school to hire it. “How can we entrust people with our children’s lives and not give them the training to protect them?” she says.

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