Current lockdown protocols outdated, inadequate

February 27, 2023


Photo by Jasmine Z. Allison

Students demonstrate how a lockdown protocol would look in the case of an active shooter event. The first usage of this method can traced back to southern California in the 1960s.

As lockdowns in schools have become a regular occurrence in schools across the country, students have known the school lockdown protocols since early elementary school. While most lockdowns do not end in severe violence, there is always a slim chance they will. In those cases, current lockdown procedures in America are outdated and inadequate. Lockdown procedures must be revised to protect students and staff from gun violence.

Active shooter events in schools have been on the rise ever since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, with over 300 between then and 2023. The FBI defines an active shooter event as “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” Other infamous shootings, such as the Virginia Tech, Red Lake, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Uvalde, have caused students and teachers to become paranoid during a lockdown.

The experience of a lockdown

The experience of students during a lockdown is a scary one. Because of the prevalence of gun violence in schools, many students’ immediate assumption when being put into a lockdown is that there is an active shooter in the building. In 2022, an incident at Stillwater Area High School occurred where an intruder entered the building, and law enforcement did not know if they were armed. The building was promptly put on lockdown.

 “I wasn’t panicking for some reason, and that normally happens,” senior Sophia Furhmann said. “I’m normally the first one who’s in tears and freaking out, but I wasn’t.”

The experience of a lockdown is not the same for every person. Because of the varying infrastructure of the school, those who are located outside of a typical classroom have a different experience. People in the cafeteria or gyms are not in an already-enclosed space and must seek shelter in the case of a lockdown.

Angie Ryan, gym and health teacher, explained that when she is in the gym, she has access to the storage rooms and will move her class there in case of a lockdown. However, during the incident last year, she was in the weight room, and the police told her not to move her class out of the weight room. She had to move her class to the center of the room in case the glass was shattered and sprayed everywhere.

Administrators in the building call when to go into and come out of a lockdown and be the coordinators. Principal Robert Bach explained that his job is to “manage most of the events with law enforcement. If it’s an actual event, [administrators] cede authority over to law enforcement as soon as they wind up arriving.”

That [kind of response to a fire emergency] would be considered insane. Yet, that is exactly what we have trained an entire generation of Americans to do for active shooters and acts of terrorism.

— Lt. Joe Hendry

The procedures and their issues

From a very young age, children are told what to do in the case of a fire. If there is a fire in the building but not in the immediate area, evacuate to the nearest exit and get far away from the building. If there is a fire in the immediate area, stay low, avoid the smoke and find a safe exit. If they catch fire, stop, drop, and roll to put the fire out. Children are taught various adaptable strategies to react to this dangerous situation. That is not the case for active shooter events.

Children are taught that their only option as a response to someone trying to gun them down is to hide in a corner with the lights off and remain quiet. Lieutenant Joe Hendry, an expert consultant to the Ohio Department of Homeland Security for civilian response to Active Shooter Incidents, asked himself the same question in ALICE Training Institute: The Origins of Lockdown.

“That [kind of response to a fire emergency] would be considered insane,” Hendry said. “Yet, that is exactly what we have trained an entire generation of Americans to do for active shooters and acts of terrorism.”

Most active shooters at schools come from someone from the school. They know the layout and have likely been through a lockdown drill. Similarly, easily accessible information on historical shootings and their patterns allows active shooters to plan well in advance where people will be and how to cause the most casualties.

“Even more disheartening was the rumor that the Virginia Tech gunman had trained to shoot into the ground,” Hendry said. “It became fairly obvious that he knew where his targets were going to be when he started pulling the trigger.”

Aside from being rigid, inflexible and predictable, current school lockdown protocols for active shooter events were never designed for most American schools’ infrastructure. They were developed for Southern California schools in response to drive-by shootings and street-level crime in the 1960s. Such events usually lasted only a few minutes outside the building perimeters. Lights off, curtains drawn and quiet classrooms would ensure that threats outside of the building could not accurately pinpoint and locate targets.

There is one significant difference between schools in southern California and most other schools around America: the infrastructure of the building. Southern California schools are open-air, with hallways, dining areas and gym facilities outside between indoor classrooms and office modules. Not all schools are in such temperate climates and have entirely enclosed buildings. This factor is the most important when determining what tactics will be used in the case of an active shooter event.

At Northwood High School, we have a more open infrastructure that is largely outdoors,” explained Brooklyn Quan, senior at Northwood High School in Irvine, California. “That makes running and escaping a much more viable option because there are many pathways to take not directly connected to buildings. We are encouraged to escape, especially during times when we are outside or during breaks because it is easier for a crowd to disperse and exit the main campus than to converge into buildings which may make things chaotic.”

Those tactics developed for open-infrastructure in enclosed buildings could cause more harm than good. If everyone tried to evacuate in an enclosed building at the same time through only a few exits, people would be forced to be funneled through doors, making them sit ducks if the shooter happened across them. If this were to be implemented at Stillwater Area High School, careful logistical planning would be needed to ensure a speedy and efficient evacuation.

SAHS is unique even amongst closed-in structure schools because there is no way to separate parts of the building from one another. Apart from the Pony Athletics Center, all SAHS is connected via hallways. The high school effectively becomes a closed system in the case of an active school shooting since the shooter could access all areas of the school unrestricted.

 “Most school buildings have some kind of big, almost fire doors type thing that could lock in the event of a lockdown, and it kind of partitions off sections of the building,” Principal Robert Bach explained.

Protocols to active shooters must be revised

Considering that traditional lockdown procedures are outdated and designed for a vastly different situation than what they are currently used for, it should be the highest priority of all parties concerned to redesign how schools approach active shooter lockdowns. It has been proven over and over that passive responses are not the most effective method when dealing with active shooters.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security suggest that institutions adopt a more flexible response to active shooter events. “Active Shooter – How to Respond” by the Department of Homeland Security lists “evacuation,” “hide out,” and “take action against the shooter” in order as priorities for keeping oneself safe during an active shooter event.

It should be mentioned that an evacuation of the building would cause chaos and could make law enforcement’s job more confusing and complicated. However, the highest priority of any active shooter plan should be to ensure that no one is injured or killed. If getting everyone out of the building is the safest option, schools should start developing an efficient and organized evacuation plan.

The protocols for active shooter events should be adaptable and efficient so that as many people as possible are removed from the presence of gun violence. As active shooter events around the country become more prevalent, schools should work with law enforcement and other experts to promptly revise their responses to active shooter events.

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