In an Era of School Shootings, a New Drill

March 25, 2008
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In an Era of School Shootings, a New Drill

By TINA KELLEY

MONMOUTH JUNCTION, N.J. — Tim Matheney stalked the silent hallways of South Brunswick High School one recent Wednesday at 1:07 p.m., peering into dark, seemingly empty classrooms and jotting down room numbers whenever he heard giggles behind locked doors. Students were supposed to remain silent and out of sight.

Mr. Matheney, the school’s principal, was roaming the suburban campus as if he were an “active shooter,” à la Virginia Tech or Columbine, as part of a “lockdown drill” now required twice a year here and in many schools around the country.

Gone are the days of the traditional fire drill, where students dutifully line up in hallways and proceed to the playground, then return a few minutes later. Now, in a ritual reminiscent of the 1950s, when students ducked under desks and covered their heads in anticipation of nuclear blasts, many schools are preparing for, among other emergencies, bomb threats, hazardous material spills, shelter-in-place preparation (in which students would use schools as shelters if a dirty bomb’s plume were to spread dangerously close) and armed, roaming sociopaths.

“I think it’s really pretty necessary,” said Natalie Wright, a junior honors student at South Brunswick High. “In my old school, we did have an intruder, and we didn’t practice,” she added, recalling how a disgruntled parent had sent her Bronx elementary school into a panic, although no one was hurt.

In the aftermath of recent school shootings, including the one on Feb. 14 at Northern Illinois University in which a gunman killed five people and himself, school administrators and police officers are stepping up emergency preparedness efforts, with many states encouraging schools to practice for the most dire situations.

In New Jersey, considered by school safety experts to be in the top tier when it comes to emergency preparedness, a task force recommended last year that districts conduct emergency drills monthly. The State Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness is working on legislation to require such drills statewide as early as next fall.

New York State requires districts and schools to have emergency response plans and to conduct emergency drills at least once a year, along with 12 fire drills annually.

Kathy Christie, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States, which advises governors and state legislators, described the requirements that some states have developed about drills. For example, she said, Rhode Island mandates two evacuation drills and two lockdown drills a year, and Michigan requires two lockdown drills.

So far in New Jersey, the new drills have been tried in towns and cities including Newark, Teaneck and Franklin Township in Gloucester County. Seton Hall University is scheduled to conduct a drill with an “active shooter scenario” on Wednesday afternoon.

In Franklin Township, administrators were startled to learn four years ago that information about one of their schools was found on a laptop carried by an Iraqi in Baghdad, though the F.B.I. said there was no terrorism threat to the school. The Delsea Regional High School District, which educates students from Franklin Township, has had regular drills in the past four years; it also had two evacuations for bomb scares in the 2006-7 school year. But school administrators discovered they were unable to keep children from using their cellphones, which could have caused the parents to panic and descend on the scene en masse, a school official said.

“There were a couple police officers with kids who would text them, and we had officers responding before we had a chance to call the Police Department,” said Superintendent Frank D. Borelli of the Delsea Regional High School District. “You have to figure out how to adjust and accommodate your plans.”

Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a private company in Cleveland that counsels campuses on how to prepare for emergencies, praised New Jersey for energetically trying to improve school security. But he said he sees a “tremendous lack of training” nationally, particularly for school secretaries, bus drivers and other support staff.

“Who’s going to take a bomb threat call? The secretary,” he said. “And the first and last person a child sees many days is the bus driver. Who knows if there’s a suspicious person or object on campus? A custodian. Not only are teachers and administrators not trained, the support staff needs training as well.”

He said that schools should have, and should practice, plans for getting students bused home in the middle of the day, for managing parents who flock to the school in an emergency, and for talking to reporters as well.

But plans are not enough, he said. “Many schools had plans on paper, but didn’t want to do something as simple as a lockdown drill for fear that it would create fear and panic among students and staff members and create undue parent attention,” Mr. Trump said.

Next month, the Middlesex County Freeholders, who govern here, plan to ask their Congressional delegation to include schools among the critical infrastructures protected by the United States Department of Homeland Security, in hopes of getting money to pay for the drills.

“Currently, there’s no funding source from the federal government, nor any direct funding from the state, that provides money to schools, public or parochial, for safety improvements,” said H. James Polos, who works in real estate and is one of seven freeholders. “Since Sept. 11, more people have been killed in school buildings than in terrorist attacks in this country. We need to improve the security level.”

Mr. Polos said there should be statewide standards so that drills were the same in every school district. “Procedurally, a lockdown in Camden shouldn’t be any different than in Newark,” he said. “For the most part, we now have schools in the same district using different protocols, and it’s confusing to staff and responders.”

Richard L. Cañas, director of the State Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said a priority was to train teachers on what to do in the 10 to 15 minutes it might take emergency workers to respond. Simply calling 911 is not sufficient, he said.

“I’m saying that’s unacceptable,” Mr. Cañas said. “Before the police arrive and you see someone with a gun outside your room, we rely on what the teacher does. They can’t freeze like a deer in the headlights.”

Mr. Cañas said that most of the state’s county governments had emergency preparedness plans, but that many districts were deficient.

“There are some schools that have no locks, and it’s hard to practice lockdowns if you have no locks,” he said. “We’re going to fix it very fast. This is not a poor state. That’s inexcusable. If we can’t protect our children, what good are we?”

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