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Article updated: 7/2/2013 5:52 PM

New law: Schools must conduct drills to prepare for shooters

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Cary-Grove High School officials got a lot of flak last winter over their decision to hold a safety drill for students and staff members that included the sounds of gunfire.

The "code red" drill was replicated at Crystal Lake Area High School District 155's other three high schools and its alternative campus but without the blank shots from a starter pistol.

Starting in the 2013-14 academic year, all school districts in the state will have to hold drills to prepare for scenarios where a shooter gets in the building.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed the legislation into law Monday, which updates the school safety drill act.

In past years, schools had the option of holding such drills but could have focused on bomb threats or hazardous materials incidents instead. Now they won't have a choice about the content of the drill, but will be able to decide whether students are present for it.

For districts like 155, the new law won't change a thing.

"Many districts throughout Illinois were already doing something like this," said Matt Vanover, state board of education spokesman. "This just codifies that."

School officials across the country planned safety exercises following the deadly December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults. The plans varied and few, if any, included gunshots like at Cary-Grove High School.

While District 155 officials were criticized for their decision to incorporate simulated gunfire in the exercise, Communications Director Jeff Puma said including students in the drill left them better prepared, which could help teachers and building leaders in the event of a true emergency.

"In an actual crisis ... you want them to be able to focus on what they need to do rather than herding cats," Puma said. "Giving our students a glimpse of what might happen really benefits them."

The new law doesn't include any requirements for fake gunshots and districts can decide to conduct the drill with staff members only. But they must hold the drill once per year and they have to ask local police officials to participate. In years past that, too, was a suggestion rather than a requirement.

Vanover said the new law will give school districts the opportunity to get feedback from law enforcement.

"First responders are specifically trained in these types of emergencies," Vanover said. "They bring something to the table that an educator may not have thought about."

Districts in Illinois already are required to conduct at least three fire evacuation drills per year and one must include participation from local fire departments. They also must hold one severe weather drill per year.

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