The following article about school lockdown drills first appeared in SJ Magazine in November 2011. In light of the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we wanted once again to share this piece, which clearly explains the required drills that take place in our children’s schools.

Learning to be prepared in school usually means sharpening study skills for tests, but now SJ students are taught – and trained – to be ready for a catastrophe in the classroom, including bombs and shooters.

Once a month, students in all grades are required by state law to have two drills: one for fire and another for security. The New Jersey Department of Education requires the drills cover four scenarios: active shooter, non-fire evacuation, bomb threat and lockdown. Each situation must be drilled at least twice within the school year.

“These drills have come about because of the tragedies that occurred in other school districts,” says Michael Nuzzo, director of security for the Cherry Hill school district. “Drills are more intensified now.”

Many lessons were learned during the Columbine High School disaster when two Colorado students killed 12 classmatess and a teacher and injured 21 others before killing themselves. Officials soon realized that valuable time had been wasted because a special operations team had to organize before arriving on the scene. Today, local police are trained for these situations, so when an immediate threat is present, officers can respond quickly.

To prepare students and teachers, each drill has different requirements. During active shooter and lockdown drills, teachers or administrators pull any students from the hall into their classroom, lock the door and turn out the lights. Students gather in the corner of the room, the door is barricaded and either a red or green card is slipped under the door into the hallway. A green card indicates everyone is okay in this room. A red card shows there is a medical emergency.

“The first responders come through to take out the threat, and the second wave comes in to triage or assist anyone who needs help by looking at those cards,” says Joe Bollendorf, principal of Washington Township High School. While some critics say the cards may alert the shooter where students are hiding, Bollendorf believes most school shootings are instigated by staff members or students, so they already know the location of students.

The lowest threat level involves a crisis in the community but outside the school. “That indicates there is maybe a fire, chemical spill or police in pursuit of a suspect in close proximity to a school,” explains Nuzzo. “As a safety precaution, they notify the school to activate a certain lockdown.”

There are variations of the drills, explains Bollendorf. “We’ve learned over time that real events happen in stages. For example, if we get a bomb threat, we evacuate the students into various quadrants and do an accountability to make sure all of our students are there.”

What happens next depends on what emergency personnel find. Sometimes the bomb threat can be resolved quickly, allowing students to return to their classrooms. Other times, it may take longer to assess the threat.

“Then, you might reposition the kids out to the stadium, weather permitting, pending a return to the building,” says Bollendorf. “If it’s going to be long or we have inclement weather, we might evacuate the kids to our bus yard across the street. We would put kids on school buses and summon drivers to come in and take those kids home. Teachers would ride the buses with those kids for accountability purposes. The critical stage is to get the kids and staff out of the building safely.”


Student Fear Factor

While everyone wants students to be safe, some parents worry how these drills might affect their children. Jeff Deminski learned his son Jack had gone through a drill at school from the first-grader. Jack told his dad he had to practice in case a bad stranger ever got into the school.

“He said, ‘We had to hide in a closet or a bathroom, and we had to be quiet, so quiet you couldn’t even cough or they’d yell at you,” relays Deminski, a radio talk show host on NJ 101.5.

“‘What would they yell?’ I asked him. He said, ‘They’d yell that now you let the stranger know where to find us and hurt us.’ A little rough for a 6-year-old, I thought.”

Deminski says it’s a shame kids have to be told what to do in case a bad stranger gets into their school. “There’s a natural growth process which is being unnaturally accelerated in children today,” he says. “I’m not concerned that the schools are doing the drills. I’m more concerned that its just one of so many changes for this new generation, changes that aren’t allowing kids to be kids.”

Yet John Cafagna, principal of Bret Harte Elementary School in Cherry Hill, counters that most of the younger kids don’t understand the threats, so they are not afraid.

“We know the more things we practice, the more comfortable people feel,” he says. “The very little students don’t need as much information other than making sure they listen to adults and stay quiet and listen for all instructions.”

Cafagna is more concerned with older students who have a better understanding of world events and recognize why the drills are necessary. Even so, Cafagna says, the students recognize that practice is necessary to ensure their safety. The principal adds that he has not received any complaints from parents about the drills.


Notifying Parents

School districts have different procedures to alert parents about drills. Some use their district-wide notification system to call or email while a drill is happening, while others will only call during a real emergency. In many cases, when younger students (Pre-K through about second grade) have a drill, the principal will send out an advance notice to parents.

“This is the first time they will be experiencing anything of that nature, and the teachers review with their students what they can expect to encounter during the lockdown,” says Nuzzo. “For upper grades, the students are used to lockdowns.”

During a real lockdown, all parents and guardians will be notified through a mass notification system, explaining what is happening but urging them not to come to school until the situation is resolved.

In the age of cell phones, students may call their parents to tell them they are in lockdown, even before the school has sent out a notification. While a parent’s first thought may be to immediately pick up her child, Nuzzo urges parents to stay home and wait for more information.

“I can understand that they have a concern and their first response is to come to the school. But we ask parents to let the police and school administrators do their job, and take the directions that are scripted on the mass notification system,” says Nuzzo. “Any parents trying to get onto school property will be halted because that threatens the safety of the students and the parents themselves. They only add to the chaos.”


Real Threats Versus False Alarms

Going back a decade, schools found themselves inundated with false bomb threats. Up until that point, schools erred on the side of caution and routinely evacuated the school. Yet the threats turned out to be false, and students who called in the bogus threats got their wish – disrupting school and getting out early.

Over the years, police and fire personnel added a procedure to determine if a threat is serious enough for an evacuation. Students are now kept on-site while the threat is assessed.

Last year, three Washington Township schools received bomb threats at the same time, straining emergency resources. Because the schools had practiced drills, the staff kept order while the threat was assessed. No bombs were found.

“Unfortunately, the younger generation today was weaned on security,” says Nuzzo. “School drills are not as emotional as maybe they were 15 years ago if you had to secure a room and lock kids in a classroom. Unfortunately, it’s the era we’re living in today and we have to be very vigilant. School security is a big part of that.”

January 2013
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