School Safety Drills Should be Realistic

The final report on the Newtown school massacre issued by the Connecticut State Police (CSP) reconfirms the importance of lockdowns and once again demonstrates that simply having a crisis response plan or conducting generic school safety drills are not enough.  Because of conflicting witness reports the exact actions taken and decisions by those involved in the incident made may never be known but several conclusions can be drawn from the heavily redacted report including the need for lockdowns and realistic school safety drills. One portion of the report which detailed the mass shooting where 20 first graders and six educators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School noted “that more than a dozen bodies, mostly children, were ‘packed like sardines’ in a bathroom.”  Police Lt. Christopher Vanghele said he and another officer found what appeared to be about 15 bodies, mostly children, packed in a bathroom.  So many people had tried to cram inside the bathroom that the door couldn't be closed, and the shooter gunned them all down, Vanghele surmised.  If this was the case it once again reaffirms the need to have the physical capacity to lockdown the school as well as the ability to secure students and staff.

As we have seen in past mass shootings and specifically school shootings isolating individuals from the offender either through exiting the facility or locking down rooms saves lives. Both this report and the one issued last month by the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice noted that students who exited the killer’s immediate area and secreted themselves in classrooms, offices or other secured areas were saved.  In one of the individual police reports released by the CSP it noted that five teachers were in a meeting and “began to hide then broke out a window to climb out”.  Another report stated that “one teacher hid students behind bookshelves in a locked classroom, and attempted to keep them calm by reading them Christmas stories”.  Even though an official lockdown was never declared at Newtown the quick response by faculty and staff to lock doors and secret students obviously saved additional lives.

Another conclusion which can be drawn from this latest report is that schools must not only have a plan and practice it but practice it under realistic conditions.  Most schools conduct what is known as “Tuesday morning” drills or school safety drills under perfect and very unrealistic conditions such as everyone is in their room, close to a phone or radio and able to secure themselves at a moment’s notice.  Drills almost always go flawlessly because they are practiced under ideal conditions and not everyday situations.

Normal occurrences such as: substitute teachers in the building with little or no crisis response training or understanding of school procedures, students in the bathrooms, walking hallways, out on athletic practice fields and teachers in common areas without access to communications are almost never accounted for in these practice drills.   School safety drills such as lockdowns, evacuations and shelter-in-place should be conducted using realistic, everyday scenarios.  Similar to traditional “obstructed fire drills” where a designated exit point cannot be used and teachers and students are left on their own to figure out the next fastest and safest way out of the building faculty and students must be able to react to changing conditions at a moment’s notice.

Prior to conducting Active Shooter drills schools must conduct an assessment to determine which rooms can be secured and where teachers should direct students to go during and attack, plans need to be modified to meet individual  school design and specific crisis response instruction must be provided to staff.

During drills realistic school day-based scenarios should be practiced.  For example, statistics show that at any given hour during the day one third of the teachers are not in their classrooms so drills should be conducted when students are in the cafeteria, gym class or involved in activities where turning a lock on a door and closing the blinds are not an option.  Additionally, school-based practice drills should be coordinated with local law enforcement officials to ensure that their plans are complementary and not competing.  If tragedies like Newtown are to have any value to us as a society we must learn from them and adapt our law enforcement and school safety practices to meet these contemporary threats.

John Matthews is the executive director of the Community Safety Institute. He is a thirty-year law enforcement veteran, the author of Mass Shootings: Six Steps for Survival , School Safety 101 and the co-author of The Eyeball Killer, a first-hand account of his capture of Dallas’ only serial killer.