Win a Winner!
Special Needs eNewsletter
Writers & Photographers
by Robert Moskowitz
Helicopters whirr overhead. Radio and TV news light up with word of a police emergency at your child’s school. It’s panic time in Parent-Ville.
But should you succumb to worry? Rush to the school to save Junior from terrorists, gang-bangers, or disgruntled neighbors going postal?
“No,” say experts. In fact, your best response is probably to stay calm and do nothing. “The safest place for any child is either in their mom’s arms or in school,” counsels Bob Spears, Director of LAUSD’s Office of Emergency Services.
What Lockdowns Do
“In L.A., we have a lot of bad boys with guns,” says Spears. “When danger threatens, we want the principal of a school to put the children in a safe place. So lockdown is our most common emergency response.”
A school “lockdown” – designed to limit risk to children – generally involves gathering all the students and staff inside, locking the doors, drawing the shades, and dowsing the lights. But lockdowns are far from a one-size-fits-all solution.
There’s no standard plan for a lockdown because every school is different. Every building is different. Every district interprets lockdowns in its own way. Districts with no gang problems prepare more for terrorist scenarios. There’s one lockdown procedure for gun threats, a different approach for bomb threats, still a third for hostage scenarios. What’s more, school threats come in a wide range of variations, and each one can involve special considerations.
“If the hazard is inside the building – fire or earthquake,” Spears explains, “we want to move the children to an open-air location. If the hazard is outside, we’re going to use the building to protect the children. With a gun threat, you can’t know where a bullet will go. So we want to put as much between the children and the bullet as possible. We’re going to move the kids inside, have them sit down to maintain a low profile, close up the windows and turn off the lights. If someone comes on our campus with a gun, it’ll look like nobody is home.”
What Happens During Lockdown
To assure rapid awareness of potential threats, school districts maintain close communication with local law enforcement. During every lockdown at an LAUSD school, for example, Spears sends a school police officer to stand next to the school principal. The officer stays in contact with the emergency situation command post, and immediately informs the principal what’s going on, whether the danger is removed, when it is safe to come out of lockdown, and how soon the school can release the kids.
“During a lockdown,” explains Donald Zimring, Superintendent of the Las Virgenes Unified School District, “teachers lock their doors, get everyone away from the windows, and wait for an ‘all clear.’ In many cases, the teaching just goes on as before. We’ve had two cases where the lockdown extended past the end of the school day, and the students simply read, played quiet games, and kept occupied.”
“Lockdowns are preventative, generally speaking,” says Jon McNeil, Assistant Superintendent, Business Services, who oversees all safety and emergency activities for the Whittier City School District. “But because we’re locking parents out and locking kids in, they tend to drive parents into an initial sense of panic. We’re very sorry about that. Later, parents tell me they’re grateful we took decisive action. But initially, they’re upset. I would ask parents to be a little more understanding: We’re not locking down because there’s a real threat, such as someone with a gun. We’re locking down because there’s a perceived threat or the possibility of a threat.”
In Whittier, any credible adult can report a problem, potentially triggering an immediate lockdown based on that information. “We lock down first and investigate second,” says McNeil, who remembers only three lockdowns in Whittier City schools during each of the past two years. “We take no punitive action on a lockdown that turns out to be of no consequence, and fortunately, we’ve never had a problem with a crank.”
Keeping Things Calm
McNeil urges calm and caution because he knows that if kids see their parents upset, it’s harder for the child to get through the rest of the day.
“Most lockdowns last only a few minutes,” says McNeil. “They are normally not disruptive for teachers, and they don’t need to be for students. What’s disruptive is parents getting upset and coming to the school. I’d strongly advise parents to trust that your child is safe, and to be as calm and comfortable as you can for your child.”
One reason students and teachers in Whittier don’t panic over lockdowns is they get a lot of practice. California requires monthly fire drills at schools, but because of advances in construction materials, sprinkler systems, and other technologies, reportedly nobody has died in a California school fire for nearly a century. Since school fires are now far less dangerous than other threats, Whittier City schools start each fire drill with a lockdown.
When the alarm clangs, Whittier City teachers step outside their classrooms, sweep the halls of students and get them inside, lock the doors, and move everyone away from the windows. Only then do they go into the fire drill itself, including evacuation. Whittier City schools also end each fire drill by moving students to the campus’s designated “reunion” area, where they practice formal release of students to their families.
Keeping Information Flowing
McNeil has some simple advice for parents when their kids are locked down: “Don’t call your kids on their cell phone. It jams up communications. Don’t contact the school. We put out information as quickly as we get it from the police, so watch your emails and check the news.”
Many districts, like Las Virgenes, now have the capability to notify parents with simultaneous robo-calls, text messages and emails.
“Lockdowns are very helpful. Absolutely vital,” says Jeffrey Baarstad, Superintendent of the Conejo Valley Unified School District. “We’ve had a few horrendous experiences in American history, so we’ve become very sensitive about trying to keep students and staff members safe. The studies show that locked doors frustrate the efforts of someone who is up to no good. I’m not sure what alternatives there are when you’re in charge of 2,500 kids.”
“At LAUSD,” says Spears, “we have an arrangement with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD): They’ve agreed not to teach algebra and English, and we’ve agreed not to deal with terrorists. Instead, we will go into lockdown to limit the bad guys’ access to kids.”
Many districts report that bank robberies, domestic squabbles, and the serving of search warrants have resulted in police ordering nearby schools into lockdowns.
In one situation, Baarstad recalls, two small children came into a principal’s office and reported that some older boys were teasing them from a private backyard next to the school. They thought the boys had a gun. About the same time, someone else reported “popping” noises in the same area. On that basis, the principal ordered a lockdown and called police. It turned out the boys had only a paintball gun and some illegal fireworks. As soon as police discovered the facts, the principal called off the lockdown.
“A lockdown itself is not dangerous,” cautions Zimring, “but what is dangerous is for so many parents to call, they shut down the school’s communications system.”
“When there’s a lockdown, parents naturally want to grab their kid and bring them out,” says Baarstad. “But multiply that by 500 kids and you’ll have pandemonium. We don’t want students just disappearing without us knowing where they went. It’s very important for us to know who picked up each student. We need records on this. Parent concern is understandable, but I urge parents to be patient, to wait for accurate information on the situation, and to follow the school’s procedures.”
While most people think schools are doing a good job of protecting students, the dilemma is to maximize safety without turning schools into fortresses. School administrators want their facilities to be welcoming and friendly places for parents, grandparents, and volunteers. But this leaves schools potentially vulnerable to criminal activity. Faced with opposing priorities, authorities developed school lockdowns as a proportional, sensible response.
When Lockdowns Go Awry
Yet lockdowns can go awry, as one did at El Camino Real High School (ECR) in Woodland Hills, last January, when reports of shots fired, a wounded police officer, and the presumption of a gunman on the loose combined to trigger an extreme lockdown that rapidly spread to nearby schools. Students were locked into classrooms for some five hours, restrained from using the school’s bathrooms (“lockdown kits” in classrooms include toilet paper and a bucket with tight-fitting lid), and given little or nothing to eat or drink. When the threat ultimately proved to be imaginary, news reports prominently featured angry parents.
“At ECR,” explains Spears, “the alleged shooting took place on the perimeter of the campus. A bystander called it in to the police. The dispatcher immediately alerted the campus officer and the principal at ECR. They called a lockdown.
“Officers on the scene thought they were dealing with someone willing to shoot a police officer,” Spears recalls. “They thought he was on foot, probably still in the neighborhood. That’s much different from a drive-by shooting, where the threat almost immediately leaves the scene.”
Worried about a desperado apparently willing to shoot an armed police officer and ill-equipped to flee, LAPD had to consider that the gunman might be hiding on school grounds.
“Yes,” says Spears, “the children and parents were extremely inconvenienced. We get that, and we’ll take the heat for it. But we couldn’t resolve the situation until LAPD confirmed that it was safe to do so. Because we couldn’t find the guy, we looked at a map and asked ‘how far can a person go on foot?’ We ultimately locked down nine schools in the area. Rather than risk the children to a person willing to fire a gun, we held the children in the safest possible location. There was a lot of frustration. We were very frustrated as well, but we couldn’t release the kids until we did our due diligence to assure their safety. We acted responsibly, based on our perception of the threat. If we hadn’t reacted the way we did, parents would want to know why the principal didn’t do anything to protect their children.”
“Think about it,” says Superintendent Baarstad, “During an emergency, if it’s not safe to use the hallways, how do you let the kids go to the bathroom? Once a situation like that starts, the police take over and they direct what we do. We simply have to follow their directions.”
Emergency Planning Resources
• The Great California Shakeout: On Oct. 20, schools throughout the state will participate in an earthquake drill that many schools also use to practice preparedness for fire and other dangers, some of which may require a lockdown. Parents can find out about this drill and help their children prepare at www.shakeout.org.
• LAUSD Emergency Preparedness: Bob Spears, Director of LAUSD’s Office of Emergency Services, is working to develop a web site for parents of LAUSD students, providing information about school emergency preparedness and response. He plans to have it translated into seven languages. The URL is: http://parentemergencyinformation.lausd.net/
Keeping Kids Hooked On Reading|
Children's author Eileen Wacker talks about embracing technology as a way to keep kids hooked on reading, even as they transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn."
A Guide for Play-Based Summer Learning|
Learning does not have to involve a workbook or flashcards. With just a bit of creativity and inspiration from the 10 ideas below, you can make this summer fun and productive!
Is Your Child Ready For Kindergarten – Or Not?|
More important than age is a series of developmental achievements that are necessary for a successful Kindergarten experience, which far outweigh the child's chronological age.
Three Things You Need To Do Before Filling Out the School Emergency Card|
Do you think a school emergency card is enough to protect your kids if something happens to you during school hours? Wrong.
Greetings From Summer Camp|
L.A.'s young campers share their first-hand experiences of canoes, cuisine and getting campy.
When Kids Become Stars|
A family time crunch, ego, money, and a host of other factors can be stumbling blocks to success for young actors. The antidote? Sensible parenting.
What happens to a whole generation of young children who must compete for their parents’ attention against intelligent devices, the Internet, social networks, and plain old-fashioned telephone conversations?
The Ecology of Diapers|
The babies keep generating them – tens of millions of dirty diapers every day – and somebody has to deal with them. In this article, we’re dispassionately exploring options for lightening those diapers’ impact on the Earth.