Police, District Scramble to Explain Mock Shooting

Thom Weidlich 06.13.24


A situation arose in Vermont last week that begot two impressively quick apologies while also showing how a communications breakdown can lead to a crisis. Unfortunately, a negative event that originates this way can also lead to finger pointing.

On Wednesday, June 5, the Burlington Police Department hosted about 20 field-tripping high-school students. As part of the presentation, police personnel simulated a robbery, with one playing a masked “gunman” who burst into the room and pretended to open fire, shooting blanks. The event was reportedly to demonstrate the unreliability of witness statements, an important topic.

As you can imagine, the students, who thought the shooting was real, were terrified. They dove for cover and pulled out their phones to text loved ones. Both the police and the Burlington School District immediately recognized their error in judgment and apologized (the district offered counseling to the students).

Press Coverage

One aspect of the responses got a lot of attention in the press coverage. The school district admitted it knew about the mock shooting, but contended the police said the students would be warned. According to a police statement issued June 6, the school officials said they would tell parents and students.

“Do you think that sort of incident would be ok for your group of students?” the police asked the educators May 23 while planning the event, according to the statement. “It is about as real life as you can get, and is certainly exactly the sort of thing we deal with most frequently.”

A school staff member replied, again according to the police statement: “I think these students will be fine with this simulation. We will give a heads up to parents and students.”

Parents, Students

Parents and students told both CNN and Seven Days, the Vermont independent newspaper that broke the story, that they weren’t cautioned.

It’s a tough situation. Look at it from both the police’s and the educators’ point of view: You have a crisis of your own making. You need to apologize, but you also have to explain how this came about and maybe defend yourself. The factual dispute — who was obliged to give the warning? — hindered a harmonious response. Obviously, the planning could have been better coordinated, but that’s easy to say in hindsight.

At least the Burlington police and school district issued a joint statement on Friday, June 7, that acknowledged these challenges. According to The New York Times, the statement said, “This week’s events resulted from a breakdown in communication between two groups trying to work together to create a meaningful experience for students.”

Photo Credit: City of Burlington

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