By Jack Healy
The bomb threat was just a hoax, but officials at Hebron High School near Dallas took no chances: School officials called the police and locked down the school this week. Separately, a middle school 2,000 miles away in Washington State went on lockdown after a student brought a toy gun to class.
But the threat and the gun were real at Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, N.M., where a seventh-grader with a sawed-off shotgun walked into the gymnasium and opened fire on his classmates on Tuesday, wounding two of them. School officials and teachers, who had long prepared for such a moment, locked down the school as police officers and parents rushed to the scene.
For students across the country, lockdowns have become a fixture of the school day, the duck-and-cover drills for a generation growing up in the shadow of Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Kindergartners learn to hide quietly behind bookshelves. Teachers warn high school students that the glow of their cellphones could make them targets. And parents get regular text messages from school officials alerting them to lockdowns.
School administrators across the country have worked with police departments in recent years to create detailed plans to secure their schools, an effort that was redoubled after the December 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn. At the whiff of a threat, teachers are now instructed to snap off the lights, lock their doors and usher their students into corners and closets. School officials call the police. Students huddle in their classrooms for minutes or hours, texting one another, playing cards and board games, or just waiting until they get the all clear.
“They kept saying, ‘Lock your doors and keep everyone away from the windows,’ ” said Rebecca Grossman, a 10th-grader at Watertown High School, outside Boston, where students have been forced to “shelter in place” three times this school year, a less serious version of a full lockdown.
The lockdowns were more disruptive than scary, Grossman said, like the time last month when a bullet was discovered in a classroom, and she and her classmates had to stay in place for four hours. She said the litany of false alarms was desensitizing students, who have come to see the responses as “just an annoyance.”
The lockdowns are part of a constellation of new security measures deployed by schools over the last decade, a complement to closed-circuit cameras, doors that lock automatically and police officers in the building. Most states have passed laws requiring schools to devise safety plans, and several states, including Michigan, Kentucky and North Dakota, specifically require lockdown drills.
Some drills are as simple as a principal making an announcement and students sitting quietly in a darkened classroom. At other schools, police officers and school officials playact a shooting, stalking through the halls like gunmen and testing whether doors have been locked.
School officials and security experts say that the lockdowns are a modest and sensible effort to guard against the unthinkable, and that they have helped keep students safe, calm and organized during shootings and emergencies. And dozens of times every month, the drills become reality.
Last month, when an 18-year-old student walked into his high school in suburban Denver and fatally shot a classmate in the head, students huddled in their classrooms behind locked doors as police commandos swept the building. They were evacuated classroom by classroom, hands over their heads, onto the snowy playing fields, all according to a plan school officials had put in place to prepare for just such an emergency.
“The staff and students knew how to safely lock down and then evacuate the school,” Scott Murphy, the district schools superintendent, wrote to parents after the shooting at Arapahoe High School in Colorado, praising what he called a well-coordinated response. “They acted quickly, appropriately and bravely.”
Even without a direct threat, schools will default to a lockdown. A high school in the San Francisco Bay Area was locked down last week as the police in the area hunted for a carjacking suspect.
Some parents wonder whether the trend has laid a backdrop of fear and paranoia across their children’s education.
The North Carolina elementary school where Jackson Green, 5, counts to 100 and delights in celebrating classmates’ birthdays has gone into lockdown twice this school year, once for a drill and once for real, sending Jackson and his classmates to huddle quietly in a hidden corner of the classroom until their teacher says everything is OK.
On Oct. 11, the school was locked down for part of the morning after a fifth-grader reported seeing an unfamiliar man in the school who turned out to be a parent. The school, which locks doors during the school day and has cameras at entrances, alerted parents and called the police.
“It speaks to the psychological conditions of these children, that they’re alert, they’re on the lookout, that this danger is always present for them,” Jackson’s mother, Sarah Green, said in an interview. “It’s constantly on their minds.”
Though Jackson is still too young to understand the broader threats behind the drills, he has absorbed their lessons so well that he has started playing lockdown at home, Green said. “Attention everyone, this is a lockdown!” he announces in the playroom. “Turn off the lights!”
“For Jackson, it’s just normal,” Green said in an email. “Quite frankly, it is horrifying that my son imposes lockdowns on his little brother in the same way that he pretends to announce the lunch menu.”
In Louisville, Ky., the school where Rachel Hurd Anger’s daughter, Ella, attends second grade was locked down after a man with five BB guns walked onto the campus. A few days later, Hurd Anger said her daughter drew a red-and-yellow emergency button and taped it to her bedroom wall. When she presses it, she and her 4-year-old brother run to the basement to hide. “It’s kind of like a security blanket,” Hurd Anger said. “She doesn’t want to take it down.”
Even the preparatory drills can leave an imprint on the youngest children. In Manhattan, Kan., Tina Steffensmeier said her first-grade son had to hide in his classroom cubby during a drill while police officers walked through the hallways and into classrooms, practicing how they would ensure that the children were tucked out of a gunman’s sight. That night, she said, he had a nightmare that a “bad guy” shot him at school.
“He’s a sensitive kid, and it really affected him,” Steffensmeier said. “How sad it is that our kids have to deal with this.”