Schoolkids of the 1950s hid under their desks during “duck and cover” drills meant to prepare them for a nuclear bomb.
Today, students lock the doors to their classrooms, turn off the lights and sit quietly on the floor. The purpose of these modern drills: to teach kids what to do should a gunman attack their school.
While school lockdowns can happen for any number of reasons, the most traumatic cause is the presence of an active shooter on campus. The increasing instances of school shootings have brought educators’ safety plans to a whole new level of importance and scrutiny.
Lisa Barnes, a parent of a high schooler in Tucson, said she once asked her son about his experience with lockdown drills.
“He asked the question back to me and wondered how I felt about lockdown drills when I was a teenager,” Barnes said. “I explained that we didn’t have them back then because there weren’t any school shootings, ever.”
Barnes said her son, a high school student, has gone through eight lockdowns and lockdown drills. After each one, he always texts or calls to tell her that he is fine and then he goes about his day.
“I don’t have the courage to ask him if he thought he was going to witness a crime, be harmed or possibly die that day,” Barnes said. “He thinks about it, but I don’t know how deep it goes.”
John Nicoletti, a police psychologist based in Colorado, said it’s difficult to fully describe how lockdowns and lockdown drills can affect kids psychologically.
Much of it depends on the preparedness of the school districts as well as the amount of support they get from people in the community.
Nicoletti uses the Jefferson County School District in Colorado as an example. That county has experienced a couple of shootings, including the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Because of this, the community is very understanding about the need to run drills in order to be prepared.
“They do lockdowns and active-shooter drills on a regular basis,” he said.
He said many schools in Colorado use a standard response protocol: locks, lights, out of sight. Children of all ages, from kindergarten through high school, run these drills.
“They adapt to it,” Nicoletti said. “It becomes like a fire drill to them.”
He contrasts this with the recent active-shooter drill in Florida, where the community was upset because of the lack of warning and preparation beforehand.
“From my perspective, it’s really up to how much preparation the school does for the parents and the kids,” Nicoletti said.
He said it’s a difficult issue to handle correctly because while you don’t want to scare children, you still want them to be prepared in case of a real shooter.
“You can’t really have an effective lockdown if you don’t do a drill on it,” he said. “It’s a fine balance between scaring people and preparing them.”
Nicoletti said the key to running an effective drill is to give people information about what is going to happen and to explain to children what they need to do to stay safe and why they need to do it.
As school shootings have increased in recent years, the attitude toward running drills has shifted.
“I don’t think the strategy behind a drill has changed,” Nicoletti said. “I think what’s changed is the importance of them. It’s like, ‘Hey, we really need to have these types of things.’ Yeah, they’re scary on one end, but we still need them.”
Jeff Coleman, safety director with the Tucson Unified School District, said that before the Sandy Hook shootings, the district’s policy recommended only that each school conduct two emergency response drills per year. After the Sandy Hook gunman killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, in late 2012, the board decided to change the policy to make two drills per year mandatory.
“Obviously, it just makes good sense that we practice an emergency drill twice a year as well, just like we do a fire drill every month,” Coleman said.
A TYPICAL LOCKDOWN
Jean Ajamie, the Arizona Department of Education’s director of school safety and prevention, said it’s difficult to describe a typical lockdown in Arizona because there are 2,000 schools.
The Arizona School Emergency Response Plan advises districts and schools against providing specifics of their emergency response plan except to district employees and public safety personnel. But it provides a guidance plan with seven minimal steps schools must consider when creating their own emergency response plans.
Most lockdowns involve locking the doors, turning off the lights and staying out of sight. However, schools might need to modify the basic procedure. For example, if a school doesn’t have a PA system, it will have to find an alternative way to notify everyone of the lockdown, which could entail having someone act as a runner to deliver the message.
While terminology may vary from district to district, there are different types of lockdowns. A soft lockdown can occur when there is police activity in the neighborhood around the school. Schools will lock the exterior doors and keep students inside, but otherwise instruction continues.
“Ideally, that should be seamless,” Coleman said. “We should be able to do a soft lockdown and they don’t even know. They know it’s going on and they don’t even see anything different.”
A hard lockdown is much more involved and is used in more serious and dangerous situations.
“You’re closing blinds, turning off lights, sitting on the floor and being quiet,” Coleman said. “It’s hard for a kid to do that for five minutes. But, you know, it’s all we can do.”
PLANNING FOR DRILLS
School safety director Ajamie said it’s important for school officials to work with other agencies when creating their plan. The state Education Department emphasizes having a multidisciplinary team to develop the plan in partnership with law enforcement, fire services, the local emergency manager and the county public health office.
“Lockdown drills, or any of your emergency response drills, when they’re done well, they will reduce anxiety in both students and staff,” Ajamie said. “But the caveat is that they need to be done well.”
Some studies have shown that a drill can be almost as scary for kids as an actual shooting, so TUSD officials impress upon administrators that they should keep the drills as calm and matter-of-fact as possible, district safety director Coleman said.
However, Coleman said the alternative is not ideal.
“You don’t practice and you don’t drill because you don’t want to run that risk,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a risk you can afford to take. I think you have to know how to do lockdowns well, and you have to drill them.”
One crucial part of the multidisciplinary team involves the school’s mental health professional.
“So often, the mental health professionals are tapped after an event to address any trauma that might have occurred,” Ajamie said. “But we have to remember to include them, especially our school-based mental health professionals, in the whole planning and training process.”
Their input is crucial because they can help create practices that are developmentally appropriate for students, she said.
“They’ll also be very instrumental in ensuring that the drills are done with consideration that some of our students are already living with an anxiety disorder or may have already been exposed to trauma in their lives,” Ajamie said.
Coleman said it’s important to be prepared for a possible serious act of violence, but it’s also important to remember that every school district will still have to face day-to-day risks like gas leaks, chemical leaks, bomb threats or even a wild animal on campus.
“We know that we’re going to have to deal with those things,” Coleman said, “so it’s important that we prepare.”