Related question: Have Americans lost their minds?
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My working-class parents attended Catholic K-12 schools, I attended Catholic K-12 schools, and my son attended Catholic K-12 schools. All of us were bewildered and amazed many years ago, long before there were mass killings at schools, when full-time police officers started to appear at public high schools, with their police cars parked outside, as if the buildings were part of the county jail. Even more amazing to me was when I had my newspaper column and wrote about this, suggesting that it was an indication that something was wrong inside the schools. Readers told me that they had never questioned why there were cops at their kids' school.
The Wall Street Journal
Updated Sept. 4, 2014 3:04 p.m. ET
DENVER—When Michelle Meeker approached a strange man last October at the Colorado nursing home where she worked, the man flashed a gun and forced her into an empty room as she tearfully begged for her life, she said.
Unbeknown to Ms. Meeker, the gunman was a local police officer and the entire episode a drill, arranged by the retirement home's management to prepare employees for an armed-intruder scenario. She filed a federal lawsuit in July against the officer and the facility, located in the small town of Carbondale, alleging she was left so traumatized she had to quit her nursing job.
The lawsuit is one of a raft of recent legal complaints about lifelike "active shooter" exercises, which growing numbers of businesses and schools are using to train for the bedlam of a mass shooting and other violent situations. In some cases, people say they were never told the drills weren't real attacks, while in other instances they maintain that those conducting the exercises got out of hand.
Robert Baker, executive director of the Heritage Park Care Center, where Ms. Meeker worked, declined to comment on the case, citing the lawsuit, but said the facility conducts routine safety drills.
A lawyer for the Carbondale police department, Thomas Rice, said police believed management had notified employees about the exercise. The officer involved used a fake gun and identified himself after Ms. Meeker became distraught, Mr. Rice said.
"This was a horrifying ordeal," said Paula Greisen, Ms. Meeker's lawyer, who said her client was so overwhelmed that she didn't know whether to believe the officer's assurances that he really was a policeman.
During the past decade, many states began requiring that schools hold lockdown or general-safety drills, apart from natural-disaster preparedness exercises. Since the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in 2012, five states have passed or amended laws specifically mandating that schools conduct active-shooter drills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
School and workplace managers say such drills—which can involve police officers in disguise firing blanks—are intended to simulate reality. But critics contend they can terrify employees and students.
"Some of our members have found the drills overwhelming," said Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, which has received complaints about active-shooter drills. "Instead of saying, 'I'm ready to help now,' their reaction has been, 'I don't know what I will be able to do in this situation.' "
Last March, four teachers in Farmington, Mo., contacted the county prosecutor's office, saying they felt uncomfortable with an announced drill at a local high school in which an airsoft gun, which fires plastic pellets, was used.
No official complaints were lodged with prosecutors. Matthew Ruble, superintendent of the Farmington School District, said drills are never held when students are present, and staff are given goggles and can opt out of being shot.
"The controlled use of airsoft guns raises the anxiety level during the decision-making process, making it more realistic in terms of making a decision under stress," he said, noting that drills had received a positive response overall from employees.
Joe Deedon, a former sheriff's deputy who runs a Denver consulting company that conducts active-shooter drills, said that simulating the stress of a mass shooting was the only way to truly prepare people. But he agreed with Mr. Crane, the former SWAT officer, that surprise exercises in particular can cause problems. He said his company's exercises are conducted only after participants are trained on disarming and tackling a gunman.
The drills, typically for schools and corporate clients, unfold under close supervision, and participants are given protective gear and the option to stop participating at any point, he noted.
"We tell them that our role player is going to come in with a training firearm, he's going to shoot blanks at you, you're going to throw stuff at him and you're going to attack him," Mr. Deedon said. "And if you don't want to do that, you can observe."
Some experts, however, say recreating the chaos of a mass shooting is no way to prime for emergencies. "There ends up being zero learning going on because everyone is upset that you've scared the crap out of them," said Greg Crane, a former SWAT officer with the North Richland Hills Police Department near Dallas who holds seminars to teach civilians different strategies to deal with mass-shooting scenarios.
The confusion that sometimes ensues during drills also can have unintended consequences. In March, a teacher in Boardman, Ohio, filed a lawsuit against local police and school officials, claiming he was unexpectedly tackled by a police officer during a drill at a high school, seriously injuring his hip and shoulder.
Jesse McClain, 60 years old, had volunteered to participate and was playing the role of a "panicked parent" when the officer tackled him without warning, his lawyer, John O'Neil, said. Boardman Township's police chief and the superintendent of the town's school district declined to comment on the incident, citing the lawsuit.
In Florida, a woman filed a complaint in March with state officials on behalf of her sister, a Fort Walton Beach nurse, over a drill at an Okaloosa County Health Department office. According to the complaint, employees weren't informed about the drill, which involved a police officer firing blanks, and many were "hysterical, crying and shouting."
A health-department investigation concluded that no policies were violated. In a June report, the department noted that the police officer portraying the shooter was accompanied by an employee holding a sign that read: "This is an exercise."
But the report also stated that some employees were unable to hear an intercom announcement notifying them of the drill and were upset they weren't told beforehand. A spokeswoman for the department said in an email that the agency routinely schedules emergency-preparedness drills. The March exercise used a U.S. Department of Homeland Security booklet, "Active Shooter How To Respond," as guidance, she said.
The nurse, Malissa Jordan, told her sister she thought she was having a heart attack and intends to file a lawsuit. "It was a traumatic experience for everyone except for the upper management who planned it," said her lawyer, Aaron Watson.Dan Frosch at firstname.lastname@example.org