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‘Like a prank’: Burlington police terrify high school students with fake shooting

A building that says Burlington Police Department above the door.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Burlington Police Department headquarters at One North Avenue in Burlington.

When about 20 Burlington High School students visited the Queen City’s police department headquarters Wednesday for a forensics class, officers staged a mock shooting — complete with a masked assailant and realistic gunshot sounds.

But the demonstration came without apparent warning to the students themselves, who dove for the ground in terror.

One student, who asked to be anonymous, said she crawled underneath a desk and began looking for her phone to text her mother when two screaming women and a man in a ski mask burst into the room and gunshots rang out.

The student said she realized that what was happening wasn't real when officers in the room didn't leap into action. The incident nevertheless reminded her of a time she’d had a firearm pointed at her, and left her crying and “shaken up and shocked.”

What was most upsetting, the student said, was that the event took place with “no heads up.”

“It was laughed about afterwards,” she said. “(It) just made it feel like a prank, basically — not much of a demonstration.”

Reports of the incident spread quickly on social media, and both Burlington police and school district quickly issued statements Thursday apologizing.

“We take our responsibility to keep students safe very seriously, and we are deeply sorry that this event occurred,” Russ Elek, a spokesperson for the school district, wrote in an email, adding that students had been offered counseling services.

In their own statement, Burlington police said that the department apologized “to any students in attendance who were upset by the specific scenario and crime scene portion of the presentation.” But police also appeared to pin the blame on school officials for the shock that students felt.

On May 23, according to police, department staff communicated details of the demonstration to school officials, including that the training event would include fake firearms in a mock shooting.

“Do you think that sort of incident would be ok for your group of students? It is about as real life as you can get, and is certainly exactly the sort of thing we deal with most frequently,” police said they told school officials.

According to police, school staff responded, “I think these students will be fine with this simulation. We will give a heads up to parents and students.”

In a letter sent home to families on Wednesday afternoon, which Elek shared with Vermont Public, school staff wrote that they were “aware a reenactment of a gunshot related crime would occur, but didn’t realize the presentation would happen without warning.”

The purpose, they wrote, was “to make a point about how witness statements can be unreliable, and detectives wanted the event to be as realistic as possible.” Such reenactments had been used during training with “older adults and college level students,” they added, but detectives apologized “after they realized that the reenactment did not translate well to high school students.”

Police officials said they would meet with school staff and students Friday to "discuss the presentation and its impact."

"We hope that this can be a reflective growth opportunity for all parties," they wrote.

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Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).