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Even if it’s not named, students understand the reasons for lockdown drills

Renee Bright

Nathan Stock was going over a math lesson with his sixth grade class when an announcement came over the intercom.

“Teachers and students, we need to move to a lockdown. Shelter in place. Again, lockdown. Shelter in place,” came the voice of Longview Elementary’s principal. “Please remember to take attendance, thank you.”

Student chatter continued for a few seconds before Stock instructed them to move to their “shelter in place positions” and to pipe down. In an orderly process free of pushing or shoving, students quickly moved to the left side of the classroom and sat on the floor beneath the windows in a line.

They sat in silence for several minutes until a knock was heard on the classroom door. There was a brief pause and then another knock.

“Nice job for not falling for my knocking,” said Principal Becky Te’o after she opened the door and acknowledged the drill.

Schools run lockdown drills to practice how students and staff should respond in the event of a threat or emergency. The most common reason that Longview Elementary in Murray has had to go into lockdown, Te’o said, is because the school has called an ambulance and they do not want students in the hall.

Another reason for a lockdown is if there was an active shooter in the school.

While mass shooting events like Uvalde, Sandy Hook and Columbine drive anxiety, statistically it’s unlikely that a student will experience a shooting at their school, according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government. However, the number of shootings at K-12 schools has increased over the last decade, according to federal data. Education Week, which tracks the number of K-12 school shootings that have resulted in injuries or deaths, reports there have been 48 such shootings so far in 2022. It’s the highest number of school shootings they’ve reported in a single year since they started tracking in 2018.

How lockdown drills are explained

Many Utah schools practice lockdown drills that look similar to the one at Longview Elementary: with doors locked, classroom lights turned off and students and staff trying to hide.

A lot of schools in Utah follow the “Standard Response Protocol” from the I Love U Guys Foundation. For lockdowns, the protocol instructs students to get out of sight, stay silent and to not open the door. The guidance is the same for adults, and they are also taught to get students away from the hallway if possible, lock the classroom door, turn off the lights and prepare to evade or defend.

Rhett Larsen, the safety specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, said public schools are required to practice safety drills but have flexibility in choosing which drills they do. Additionally, they are not mandated to specifically practice lockdown drills.

While Murray School District spokesperson Doug Perry said the district does not follow the foundation’s standard response, the Alpine School District does, according to American Fork Assistant Principal Brett Robertson.

Many students at American Fork High School have been doing lockdown drills since elementary school and so when the high school ran a drill in October, it was nothing new.

“We weren’t really told about what the purpose is, but we’ve done it enough times,” said American Fork senior Parker Sykes. “So, we weren’t told, but we kind of just assumed. Or I did, at least.”

He didn’t get an explanation on the day of the drill, but Sykes has had teachers talk about school shootings before.

“A lot of like, ‘here are the safety precautions, here is what we need to do,’” he said. “They don’t want to get too much into, like, teaching politics and why it happens, or that kind of thing. I also know that a lot of teachers do it just to kind of reassure us that we’re able to be safe and how you can be safe.”

Senior Meg Atkinson thinks it’s good that teachers do not talk in-depth with students about school shootings as that could frighten them. What she does wish was spoken about more is how students should react if an intruder did come into the classroom.

Adults might be hesitant to talk with kids about school shootings because a lot of them knew the world that existed before the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. That’s what Jaclyn Schildkraut, the interim executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium, thinks. There’s a worry they will cause trauma by talking about active shooters in schools.

“But then you have the children in the room who don’t know a world where this isn’t commonplace,” she said. “And because it’s very normalized to them, it’s also very normal for them to want to talk about it.”

To her, adults should not shy away from having conversations with students about school shootings, because it’s a controlled environment.

“You’re able to present this in a way where you’re teaching and empowering them versus scaring them. By leaving it up to chance, to the internet, to their peers, you’re actually creating a bigger problem.”

While Schildkraut believes adults should engage, that does not mean they need to bring it up before doing a lockdown drill. When Schildkraut has taught drills, she never uses the phrase “active shooter.” Instead, she might tell students that the protocol is for emergencies.

“Do I think that kids don’t know what we’re talking about? No, I’m not ignorant. I know they know exactly what we’re talking about,” she said. “Why would I ramp them up over something that may never impact them?”

At the elementary school level, Longview Elementary Principal Becky Te’o said the explanation behind a lockdown drill looks different for every grade. But like Schildkraut, teachers do not intentionally bring up the phrase “active shooter.” Te’o said if she were explaining it to kindergartners she might tell them that they are just doing the drill for safety reasons.

“There might be somebody that we just don’t know that’s on our playground,” Te’o said.

What lockdown drills are like for students

According to a study co-authored by Schildkraut, students felt less anxious after going through a lockdown drill.

For his part though, Sykes, the American Fork High senior, expressed some mixed feelings.

“It’s comforting to know that you know how to do it. But it’s also not comforting to know that it’s something we have to know,” Sykes said.

Sophomore Abigail Combs noted her eighth grade sister was also doing a lockdown drill at her school on the same day as the high school.

“And she was, like, scared about it,” Combs said. “And I was just trying to explain to her that it’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s practice so that you don’t have to be afraid if it actually happens.”

Even so, when Combs went through the drill herself it had been a while and her heart started to beat faster. The threat of an active shooter is something that is frequently in the back of her mind.

“What would I do? How would I react if someone were to come into the school? Or if we were at lunch eating and someone came in with a gun, what would we do?” Combs said.

Schildkraut said there are good practices for lockdown drills that can help reduce a student’s anxiety and there are wrong ways that could increase a student’s fear.

First, they should always be explicitly called “drills,” according to Schildkraut, and school staff members should be calm to model how kids are supposed to act.

“No one should be dressed up like a shooter and telling kids they’re going to kill them. No one should be dressed up as a crisis actor or covered in fake blood,” Schildkraut said. “We don’t set schools on fire to practice a fire drill. We don’t need to simulate an active shooter to practice the lockdown drill.”

After the drill is over, Schildkraut said there should be a debrief of what just happened. Everyone has a chance to exhale and students can ask questions. And while it is important that kids know what to do in a lockdown, Schildkraut said one of the most important parts of a lockdown procedure is locking the door.

“We know that door lock is the number one life-saving device in an active shooter situation,” Schildkraut said. “It takes time to defeat a door lock, but it also creates space.”

Updated: December 15, 2022 at 1:39 PM MST
This story was updated to clarify a quote from interim executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium Jaclyn Schildkraut explaining lockdown drills.
Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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