A different kind of emergency drill
Monday was the first day of school for most kids in Carroll County. As always, that kind of makes me a bit nostalgic.
I still remember the excitement and apprehension I felt walking into a new school, the relief of seeing familiar faces of both students and a few teachers and, by the end of the day, an impatience to get back home.
Why was I so excited to come here? I have TV to watch, books to read, backyard dragons to slay.
It’s kind of the same way I feel about work.
Regardless, that’s one of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed writing education stories — or, at least, the ones more focused on students and teachers as opposed to finances and the like.
I graduated from Charleston High School in 1990 along with 121 of my fellow classmates, most of whom had spent the fall, winter and spring of the previous 13 years right alongside me, learning from some of the best educators Mississippi County, Mo., could offer. I genuinely enjoyed my time there, even as I couldn’t wait to get out.
I even enjoyed the fire and tornado drills. After all, being prepared for the unexpected is always important. Spending my youth as a Boy Scout taught me that.
I remember climbing under a desk at Hearnes Elementary in Charleston for earthquake drills, lining up in the hallways for tornado drills and heading outside to clown around and be counted during fire drills.
As much as things have remained the same, much has also changed. In addition to drills for fires and natural disasters, students now have to deal with new threats, threats from other people.
I’m talking about intruder drills.
Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, there have been a total of 304 fatal school shootings. It’s a real threat, a real problem and a real fear for many, both adults and students.
As a longtime newspaperman and a parent, I’ve tried to stay current on safety measures in our schools and, in particular how schools deal with preparing students for these rare, but all-too-common incidents.
A few years ago, I got the chance to see firsthand what one of these drills entails, joining a classroom in the Perry County School District in Perryville, Mo.
“This drill is one of eight emergency drills that we practice throughout each school year — we hold one tornado, earthquake, fire and intruder drill each semester,” read a message sent to parents advising them of the upcoming drill.
I contacted the school district’s communications director to find out more information and see if I could visit the school during the drill and see what it was all about.
She agreed, inviting me over to the high school and getting me situated in one of the classrooms for the drill.
Martin told me that this intruder drill was different. It would utilize the district’s new emergency broadcast system, which provides voice prompts instead of bells to direct faculty, staff and students on what actions to take.
Having arrived a little later than I intended, I didn’t have long to wait before the drill kicked off. A woman’s voice came over the intercom, announcing the drill and directing faculty and students to initiate “Secure the Building/Classrooms” procedures, which includes locking doors, shutting off lights and covering windows.
“Do not barricade at this time,” the announcement continued.
It was explained that this particular drill was referred to as a “lockdown” scenario, which is different from a “lockout,” in which all students are brought inside and exterior access to school facilities is shut down.
That’s in case there is something happening near but outside the school.
At the first sound of the announcement, students sprang up from their desks and immediately went to work securing the classroom before hunkering down out of sight of both windows and doors. The classroom grew quiet.
I have to admit I was a little unnerved and jumped a few moments later as someone rattled the doorknob. The students didn’t blink.
After it was all over, I got the opportunity to ask a couple of them why.
“I feel like we take [these drills] really seriously every time we do them,” said one student, a denior. “It’s nice to know that the school is prepared in case something would happen.”
Another factor is familiarity. According to school officials, these types of intruder drills have been part of the district’s preparedness procedure for a decade, meaning that students like those in the classroom I was visiting had been participating in them since middle school.
“I feel a lot safer here [because of the drills],” a female student told me.
“It’s sad that we live in a day and age where we have to practice this,” said my host.
She’s right. Looking back on my own scholastic experience, I don’t think most of our classrooms — no matter the grade — even had doors, much less locks and deadbolts.
Faculty and staff hold a safety review after every drill and determine what changes, if any, need to be made. They also participate in staff training every year before the school opens in spring.
The fact that our schoolchildren have to practice what to do in case of an intruder is disheartening, to say the least, but seeing the lengths that school faculty and staff go to in order to protect their students goes a long way to making me feel a little bit better about it.
Hopefully, one day these drills will go the way of the nuclear attack drills of the 1950s. Until then, sadly, it’s best to be prepared. The harder part, I think, is having to explain to your children why these drills are necessary and hope you can do it in such a way that they won’t be scared to go to school.
After all, that’s where the fun is — usually.