Practicing for a story we hope never to cover

Montclair State students prepare documentary on simulated school shooting

It’s the sort of story you hope you never have to cover — a hostage-taking and shooting at a school. But as dozens of local and state law enforcement officers practiced how they would respond to such a situation, more than 20 MSU students and recent grads were on hand on Aug. 20 to videotape the emergency preparedness drill, for an upcoming documentary.

The students were scattered throughout the grounds of Liberty Middle School in West Orange, including inside the building and on the roof.

The drill included actors playing the parts of the hostage takers, school officials, concerned parents and the news media, and featured a bomb in a car and in a trash can. While the hostage takers fired blanks at first responders, the pretend parents and reporters shouted questions at law enforcement personnel, to make the scene as chaotic — and realistic — as possible.

The MSU cameras inside the school building provided the pool footage for all of the major local news outlets, and as a result, our students’ work was seen on WCBS, Fox5, WABC-TV and NJTV. In addition to participating in the actual shoot, the students will be involved in the post production of a documentary and the footage will also be provided to the Dept. of Defense at Picatinny Arsenal, for use in training first responders.

The project involved 8 students from Prof. Larry Londino’s summer class, as well as 15 students from Patty Piroh’s Practicum and several recent graduates, including Krystal Acosta, who was the overall producer.

And as you can see in the photos, Dumont Director of Broadcast and Digital Media Facilities Nick Tzanis couldn’t resist grabbing a camera to get in some shooting time.

Besides the images in this gallery, the complete set of more than 300 photos is available here, on

Student Orlando Hurtado shares his experience of being a part of and filming the simulated school shooting.

As a transfer student brand new to Montclair, my perspective of the active shooter drill was through the interesting lens of the MSU film crew. Volunteering for this event was not only a thrilling experience, but it also enlightened me in an inordinate amount of ways. Not a moment went by when I wasn’t either learning something new or doing something exciting. Filming the whole event from beginning to end was a great learning experience, particularly in growing my production skills. What made this an un-ordinary filming day for me, was the fact that I was working in the middle of what a real school shooting would be like if it actually were to happen. This simulation was orchestrated so well that it was difficult for me to calm my nerves. Even though I was not a first responder doing all the dirty work, I had to keep reminding myself that it was only a drill and not the real thing. The most convincing part of this all was not the parade of law enforcement, but the screaming parents and the bloody bullet wounds. The performance from the actors and makeup design for the gunshots were phenomenal. The whole enactment really made me feel like I was witnessing a school shooting.

I believe the media plays a crucial role in our every day lives. Without media history would not be perceived the way it is today. Participating in this mock shooter drill was great, but seeing it through the perspective of a third party was an even bigger privilege. This gave me an inside look at how first responders deal with unfortunate events like this, along with having the honor to capture footage for all major local news outlets. All content will also be used in a documentary that will be sent to the Department of Defense at Picatinny Arsenal. This reinforces the fact that the press, TV, film and any other multi-media influence in any situation are crucial to the development and progress of human society. Therefore, I am proud to be part of such a special production team that provided useful training information to all first responders around the country.

Montclair State | New Jersey

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson teaches multimedia journalism at Montclair State. He's a former senior manager at AOL's Patch, The Associated Press, and