The Lowdown on Lockdowns / Are North Texas children safe from school shooters?

WORDS
Lisa Poisso
ILLUSTRATION
Mary Dunn
PUBLISHED
August 2014 in
DallasChild, FortWorthChild, NorthTexasChild
UPDATED
August 5, 2014
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“You're dead.”

Chilling words crackled through the cold January air when educators at Celina Elementary School found themselves confronted by a man claiming to be a gunman. Haunted by images of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, not everyone at the Celina school realized that Ronald Miller, whose son was a student at the school, was taking it upon himself to conduct his own active shooter security drill.

Misguided as Miller's actions were, his concerns about school security reflect prevailing anxieties in post-Newtown America. What would happen if a deranged gunman appeared at your child's school?

Since Sandy Hook in 2012, the nation has watched in horror as 74 more shootings have rolled through our schools. Even so, mass shootings (which the FBI defines as incidents in which four or more people are killed) accounted for fewer than 90 deaths out of a total of about 12,000 U.S. homicides during 2012, according to policymic.com.

As such, most schools around the Dallas-Fort Worth area have taken a prepared-yet-balanced approach to the threats of gunmen and bombs in schools. Such measures include state-mandated lockdown drills or the presence of a trained, armed marshal in public schools (authorized by a recently passed Texas law).
 
“It's not that I'm not concerned about the shooter that's coming,” asserts Dallas ISD Chief of Police Craig Miller. “I'm more concerned about the day-to-day safety of the campus than I am the exceptional school shooter like Adam Lanza. I'm concerned about the parent that's upset with the counselor because they don't feel that their kid's getting the attention that they deserve, and they come to the unlocked portable door and confront the counselor. That's more of a reality that happens daily in our district.”

Prevention and intervention programs, such as the Be A Hero anti-bullying program at Dallas ISD or the Kindness Matters collaboration and cooperation initiative in Burleson, lay the groundwork for preventing day-to-day violence. And indeed, it's that same day-to-day security that concerns parents.

While most of us grouse about recently added buzzer entry systems, some schools' routine security procedures are still coming up to speed. Denton mom Karen Wiley recalls a recent school visit. A fill-in office staffer simply jotted her arrival information on a sticky note, and then sent her around to a building where she was able to enter and wander freely — a situation she calls “scary.” 
 
Still, too much aggressive structure can be terrifying in its own right. An early, teacher-developed program in Burleson ISD threw the community into an uproar over directives that encouraged children to physically fight back against shooters. The administration reassigned the teacher and veered away from the program, which continues to cut a high profile in the national media but has not gained traction in North Texas schools. 
 
Today, the Burleson schools work with local police in yet another innovative approach that's based on traditional safety strategies but gives individual teachers the authority to call a lockdown or move their students to safety. A mistaken lockdown call is considered no harm, no foul, and teachers who can ascertain a safe opportunity to evacuate their students are empowered to do so.  
 
Guidelines released last year by the federal government (and supported by $29.7 million in grants for emergency planning efforts from the U.S. Department of Education) represent an attempt to establish best practices for campus safety and security. However, not everyone agrees the recommendations are on target.  
 
Michael Dorn, of Atlanta-based Safe Havens International, fears that teachers who've been instructed to fight or disarm a shooter tend to focus on that strategy to the exclusion of simple tactics like locking classroom doors.  
 
The school safety and emergency planning consultant also worries that emergency preparedness efforts are being focused in the wrong place. “The biggest problem we have is that the allocation of resources for active shooter training is so far out of balance with actual causes of death on school property,” he says.  
 
Dorn also expresses concern that private schools, which are often left out of school security legislation, may consider themselves exempt from the threat of shootings.  
On the other side of the coin is Dallas ISD, one of a growing number of urban school districts that wields its own dedicated police force.  
 
Dallas ISD has just completed a comprehensive security upgrade, including door locks, buzzers, intercoms and cameras — a standard already at suburban schools, such as Allen, Plano, Burleson and others.   
 
“If someone wants to get into your school with an assault rifle and grenades, they're going to make entry,” Chief Miller stresses. “All you can do is hope to mitigate the amount of damage they do by having your people prepared." 
 
Maintaining that sense of calm preparedness requires nimble communication. Most schools rely on a combination of phone, email and website updates to let parents know what's happening. Allen ISD has become known for lightning-fast response times on its Facebook page.  
 
“We understand that parents want information,” says John Palm, Allen ISD director of risk management. “They're scared when something like this happens. So we try to help coordinate that. But with students with mobile devices, it's hard to control. So the way we have found to combat some of that wrong information is to be proactive on our own." 
 
In fact, it was parental anxiety that pushed Ron Miller into taking safety preparedness into his own hands. His attorney told NBC 5 after the trial that Miller had recently lost his 16-year-old daughter to cancer. In addition, he had concerns over a security incident earlier that year in which his 7-year-old son had wandered away from school. Add in Sandy Hook and the grief-stricken father had become consumed with the possibility of losing his younger child.  
 
“It was not my intent to cause any harm or to make anybody afraid," NBC 5 reports Miller saying after he was found not guilty. “I just wanted to make sure the kids were safe.”
SIDEBAR

Safety Checkup


You don't have to pretend you're a bad guy breaking into your child's school to check up on security procedures. Safe Havens International security expert Michael Dorn shares the top three signs to identify effective emergency preparedness. 

1. Student supervision When you visit the school, do you see unaccompanied students in the halls? Are teachers leading groups of students rather than following them, watching for stragglers? Are staff members chatting on the playground rather than spreading out to keep watch? “If we would put 10 percent of the energy toward improving student supervision that we are putting toward active shooters, we could cut the death rate in our schools probably by 50 percent,” Dorn says.

2. Access control Every adult in a K–12 school should be wearing a plainly displayed photo ID badge; visitors should all wear time-sensitive visitor badges that show at a glance they were issued that same day.

3. Key protocols The schools with the best safety and security performance, Dorn says, use procedures to move students quickly and safely via two separate protocols:
Reverse evacuation Can staff members bring the students back into the building in an emergency situation quickly and safely?
Room clear Can staff members move students away from a dangerous situation in a classroom or communal space, like the school gym, quickly and effectively?
 
If you're not seeing these kinds of best practices at your child's school, contact a school administrator to discuss your concerns. Keep in mind that there may be a number of safety programs and protocols taking place behind the scenes that you're not aware of. 
SIDEBAR

Don't Let Lockdowns Lock Up Kids' Feelings


Some children react to lockdown drills with uncertainty and fear, while others adopt on a blustery, devil-may-care swagger. Either way, experts caution parents not to dismiss children's misgivings. 
 
"What we actually find is that [ignoring their reservations] only enhances that child's anger, fear, anxiety," says Dr. Jackie Nelson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas. "In a way, we're not really validating or respecting that child's feelings — which you know, as an adult, if someone close to you told you 'Oh shake it off, it's no big deal' when you're upset with something, that would be kind of hurtful." 
 
When you talk with kids about their school day, use mentions of lockdowns as a chance to explain why drills are important and how they help keep students safe. "You want to let children know that this is important and that it's serious, but at the same time you don't want to induce more anxiety or fear in a child," Nelson said. 


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