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W.Va. educators learn about the nature of gunfire in schools as a safety precaution

By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

August 20, 2013|matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Administrators and teachers in Berkeley and Jefferson counties have been experiencing what gunfire in their public school buildings sounds and feels like as part of a fledgling safe-schools initiative. 

“Hopefully, we’ll never need this, and they’ll never hear it again, but at the same time, I think it helps. You can never be too prepared,” said Ron Stephens, Berkeley County Schools’ assistant superintendent for pupil services. “And if it saves one life or makes people take things more seriously when we’re talking about safety protocol, then it’s well worth it.”

The firing of blank ammunition inside the school buildings is part of the Eastern Panhandle Safe Schools Initiative, which is an ongoing collaborative effort of the FBI, West Virginia State Police, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, Berkeley County Schools and Jefferson County Schools.

“The feedback we’ve gotten is very positive,” FBI Special Agent J. Cisar said Tuesday.

The team of law-enforcement officers participating in the initiative will have visited seven of Jefferson County’s 17 schools by the end of Wednesday to provide “a very realistic experience” of what gunfire sounds like inside the buildings by firing high-quality blank ammunition, Cisar said.

In Berkeley County, Cisar said six to eight schools have been visited, but some school staffs joined others at one location for the demonstration. Attendance has been strictly voluntary, and administrators are at liberty to ask for demonstrations for the staff at their respective schools, Cisar and Stephens said.

The demonstrations were done when students were not present.

Stephens said he and more than 20 administrators representing schools across the district volunteered to experience the gunfire demonstration together at Orchard View Intermediate on Aug. 5. 

“Some of them had never heard gunshots or any type of loud firecrackers or anything more than a Fourth of July (fireworks display), so there were some nervous people,” said Stephens, who described himself as an avid outdoorsman.

Different calibers of ammunition were fired from various places inside the building while the participants were gathered in one room, Stephens and Cisar said.

The demonstration showed that some of the gunfire could not be heard when fired in different areas of the building, according to Stephens.

“Also, they wanted people to recognize that certain sounds — the slamming of a book in the hallway — might sound like certain rounds of ammunition,” Stephens said.

“Hearing it inside, in concrete walls, the echo, it certainly does have a different sound,” Stephens said.

“That’s not a sound you ever get accustomed to hearing. ... It’s not something you want to hear, but it’s hopefully exposing our people, so that they would recognize it if they are ever in an unfortunate circumstance where they have to hear it,” Stephens said.

Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty said the intent of the gunfire demonstration is not to scare or frighten anybody, but to “prepare for the worst and hope it never happens.”

Dougherty, who served on the Jefferson County Board of Education before being appointed sheriff in March, said the first such gunfire demonstration in collaboration with the FBI was held in Jefferson County at the end of the last school year for administrators. Many of the administrators were apprehensive, he said.

“It’s a very emotional experience,” Cisar said.

Cisar said the gunfire demonstration is one of the ideas members of the initiative came up with to try to improve school safety, and there are hopes to expand the program in the future.

“We’re trying to cater to what they need and are asking of us,” Cisar said. 

Cisar said he would like to expand the program west into other counties in West Virginia, but is leaving it up to school district leaders to contact program representatives.

“We’re just trying to be proactive,” Cisar said.

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