The replica M-16 rifles the ROTC unit at George Mason University uses for its training exercises led to a report of an active shooter on campus last month. The replica weapons are black and closely resemble real weaponry, and ROTC officials have since affixed orange tape to their weapons so they won’t be mistaken for real guns. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a century-old military leadership program, has overhauled its weapons training procedures on the nation’s college campuses after cadet drills — including one at George Mason University — were mistaken for possible active-shooter attacks.

Maj. Gen. Christopher P. Hughes last week ordered all 275 Army ROTC units and 700 other affiliated programs to use extra precaution during training exercises that involve the use of realistic rifle replicas and furtive movements that could be mistaken for a threat to the community. Several reports that schools were under attack in recent years were later linked to cadet trainings involving the use of AK-47 and M-16 replicas as students maneuvered on or near campuses.

The new policies, which urge discretion when transporting the replica weapons and better coordination with colleges about scheduled training exercises, went into effect last week and rewrite protocols that had existed for decades dictating the ways cadets prepared for war. But amid rising campus safety concerns, Hughes has called for ending practices that have led to moments of panic, confusion and dread.

“Due to the national increase of workplace and campus shootings, our training requires increased coordination, on and off-campus, with appropriate authorities to enhance our safety and minimize misperception by civilian populace or local authorities,” Hughes wrote in a new policy distributed to ROTC programs nationwide.

Hughes said in an interview with The Washington Post that he decided to issue new training rules after a recent incident at George Mason University resulted in police sweeping the campus in search of two men armed with rifles.

The reports on Sept. 22 triggered a rapid response from the university, which sent out a message alerting the campus in Fairfax, Va., about the possible threat. It’s a message many campuses have had to broadcast in recent years in response to fears of gun attacks in the wake of shootings such as the one at Virginia Tech in April 2007, when 32 students and staff were killed.

Members of the George Mason ROTC take part in a training exercise as they simulate carrying rifles on Sept. 29 in Fairfax, Va. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The suspicious armed men lurking in the woods at George Mason were ROTC cadets participating in a field exercise. Police who arrived at the wooded area that afternoon found more than 100 cadets carrying black M-16s as part of the training drill; though the guns look realistic, they are nonfunctional and made mostly of rubber.

Within minutes, George Mason issued a statement indicating that the episode was a false alarm. But the fact that the students who called in the threat to police feared that the ROTC cadets appeared so menacing caused concern within the ROTC command.

“We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Hughes said.

Similar erroneous threats involving ROTC units have been reported as recently as last spring at the University of North Dakota and also in recent years at California State University Dominguez Hills, Montana State University, the University of Texas and Michigan State University, among others.

Hughes has ordered all ROTC cadets to be more discreet when transporting their rifles around campus and also called for drills to be conducted “away from high traffic areas so as not to alarm the populace.”

Hughes said his decision to write the new policy letter was partly inspired by the Virginia Tech massacre. Hughes’s daughter attended West Springfield High School in Fairfax County and had friends who later enrolled at Tech. On the day of the shooting, Hughes and his family spent hours trying to reach one of his daughter’s former classmates, Leslie Sherman, who was shot and killed in her French class.

“I have scar tissue with this,” Hughes said.

Hughes hopes the new policy will mean that ROTC cadets will not be confused with any real threat to a campus. At the same time, Hughes said he wants to encourage students who see anything suspicious to report it without thinking that it might be a false alarm. It’s a careful balance, Hughes said, because ROTC cadets need to train for the very real possibility of combat.

When Hughes was a student in ROTC in the early 1980s, his unit used to practice breaching techniques on campus by storming into academic buildings with their replica weapons. “That was in a different environment then,” Hughes said.

Hughes said that ROTC’s central mission remains the same: training soldiers to lead in battle, as ROTC cadets make up the vast majority of the Army’s 6,500 new officers each year. The training they receive with the replica rifles — which the cadets call “rubber ducks” — is a crucial part of their education.

“Our second lieutenants, when they walk out of college, they are handed 40 real soldiers with real weapons,” Hughes said. “They have to have these skill sets when they graduate.”

The false alarm at George Mason led to immediate changes. The ROTC battalion at the school altered its protocols in less than 24 hours. Lt. Col. Travis Southwick, a burly 26-year veteran of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan who oversees the ROTC battalion, called for all 90 of the cadets’ replica rifles to be modified with bright orange duct tape to make clear to passersby that the weapons are fake.

Michael Sandler, a George Mason spokesman, said the administration values ROTC’s presence on campus and works to support the program. “In many cases, the students who attend George Mason on a ROTC scholarship wouldn’t be able to attend college without it,” Sandler said. “We have a good history with this program.”

Hughes said he wants to ensure that ROTC cadets remain trusted members of their university communities who can be depended upon.

“We do this because we want to protect Americans,” Hughes said. “When there is a threat, whether it’s at home or overseas, we rush to danger to solve the problem and protect others. That’s our mantra and the fiber of our being.”

Army Cadet 2nd Lt. Jeremy Neff, left, gives instructions to his platoon during a training exercise at George Mason University on Sept. 29 in Fairfax, Va. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)