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Mock hostage situation creates real fear

August 14, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

BUNKER HILL, W.Va. - Musselman High School drama students Lacey Snow and Candice Harper broke character by giggling during practice Thursday morning, when drama teacher Michael W. Stiles played the role of the gunman and everyone followed the script.

But they weren't giggling that afternoon, when Martinsburg Police Patrolman Richard Rhinaman assumed the same role for a full-blown mock hostage situation at the school and threw the script aside.

"I've never been this scared before in my life," said Snow, 16, of Inwood, who will be a junior at the school. "We didn't know the guy. We were acting, but it was really scary. The screams were real."

Snow and Harper were among 17 Musselman High drama students who volunteered to serve as hostages in the scenario, which called for the irate father of a student to come into the school's cafeteria and open fire on the group of students there during a study hall period.

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The scenario called for one student to be killed, several others to be wounded, and for the gunman to threaten other students' lives in the cafeteria.

This was the second year the Berkeley County Board of Education and Schools Superintendent Manny P. Arvon called for a simulated school hostage situation before the start of the school year, said school system spokeswoman Mary Jo Brown.

The purpose is to help school employees, police and emergency personnel plan and prepare for dealing with such situations in the schools, Brown said.

Brown worked with Lt. Kenny Lemaster of the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department, Stephen S. Allen, director of the Berkeley County Office of Emergency Services, and Berkeley Heights Elementary School Principal Jim Holland to organize the event.

Every school principal, assistant principal and school secretary was supposed to attend, Brown said.

Last year's scenario had an older brother of a student come into a classroom at Bedington Elementary School and hold students hostage, she said.

However, the most striking difference from this year was that everyone basically stuck to the script and could anticipate what would come next, Brown said.

The deviation from the script and the drama students' believable reactions enhanced the realism of this year's mock emergency situation, making it even more beneficial than last year, said school system, law enforcement and emergency officials.

"We tried to make it as realistic as possible without causing any injuries or damage," said Lemaster, who said his department's goal in participating is to make the school environment safer for children.

"It also gives us an opportunity to practice and train in more realistic conditions," he said.

The sheriff's department's eight-member special response team joined forces with the police department's four-member team in a working relationship they plan to continue, Lemaster said.

The situation played out very realistically, said Bennington, Vt.-based tactical training expert Tom Archambault, who said police would try the "less-lethal" bean bag rounds used to bring down the faux gunman before resorting to bullets.

Archambault, in town to train sheriff's department and city officers in dealing with barricaded subjects, commended the school system for organizing the cooperative training exercise.

"You people are leaders in the country," he said.

Still, it's sad that you need to have the training at all, said Melody Ward, who played one of the student hostages.

"School should be a place where you can learn, not where you should fear for your life," said Ward, 15, of Inwood, who will be a sophomore at the school.

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