Safe schools adapt quickly to shifting needs

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A personal insight into catalysts that change safety protocol

Nathan Wilson | Reporter
After reflecting on the recent tragedy at Robb Elementary, I have decided to share a story of my experience with school lockdowns and other safety procedures at the school where I once taught.
The campus of the school where I worked better resembled a small university like NSU than the monolithic structure favored in today’s school designs. The sprawling high school campus included around a dozen buildings criss-crossed by breezeways in a layout established when it was a community college. Its porous network of street-facing entrances was identified as a vulnerability while I was there, and a series of changes were implemented to enhance school safety. I may have played a role in creating the impetus for some of those changes.
The campus went into full lockdown twice during the five years I worked there. In the first incident, one of my students stepped away from his desk, looked out the window of our second story classroom and saw a man walking onto campus with a gun holstered at his side. The student alerted me, and I called the main office before locking the door to our classroom and flipping off the lights.

This article published in the June 2, 2022, print edition

A campus-wide alert went out over the speaker system and within minutes of my student spotting the man, our entire school was in full lock down. Even so, it was too late. Seconds before the call went out over the intercom, the armed, plain-clothes detective stepped into the science classroom where he had been invited to speak to the class about careers in forensic investigations. I later heard he was impressed by how quickly our school responded to the false alarm.
My classroom, along with all the others on campus, huddled in the dark in silence until we were given the all-clear. I know there were meetings about the incident, one the same day and at least one more afterward, because I was friends with the science teacher, and he told me about having to answer for the breach of protocol that plummeted our school into crisis mode.
I am not aware what, if any, of our school’s policies were reviewed to restore our sense of security following the lockdown. Our school administration never called a staff meeting to discuss the incident, and the only meeting I attended was when two uniformed police officers interrupted my class the next day to ask me questions I didn’t understand or appreciate like how had I had seen the gun on the detective’s belt without noticing his badge, and what was my eye color.
No memos or policy changes came from the administration that week, but the science teacher let me know the school officials he met with had reached a couple of conclusions. First, the detective hadn’t checked in with our campus office upon entering the school premises. Second, it might not have prevented us from going into lockdown if he had tried. Their conclusion was that he couldn’t have reached the office before my student spotted him and I called in the report.
About a year later, fences were installed around the campus buildings during the winter break. They were equipped with heavy gates that staff could lock from the inside in the event of a school lock down. Several gates were kept closed and locked most of the time, and others always seemed to be open. Our duty stations were also rearranged to place teachers near some of the gates during lunch or before and after school.
The second time our school locked down was because of a shooting a couple years after my first lockdown. It wasn’t at our school, but the affected school was closer to our campus than some of the other schools within our district, and there were fears our school might be attacked too. A whole new group of students crowded together in the only corner of the darkened classroom that wasn’t in sight of the windows facing into the hall.
At first, I told them to put their phones away, but I settled for them turning down the brightness to avoid drawing unwanted attention. I saw their faces illuminated as they peered at their screens in the darkened room, reading texts and snap chats and anything that offered a hint of what was happening at the other school.
Our students were also under attack that day. One mentioned a cousin at the other campus, another had a boyfriend going to school there. I stopped listening when I heard one of my students tell her best friend there had been a life flight evacuation.
Unlike in Uvalde, law enforcement at our neighboring school responded quickly and appropriately to a terrifying situation. The gunman was stopped with force, but not before taking the lives of multiple people that day. I couldn’t have answered then how many innocent lives were lost at the other school, because I avoided the news for weeks afterward. What I couldn’t ignore was the flood of safety protocols that ensued. Some of our new training was long overdue and some hastily conceived, but suddenly doors and gates that had never been locked were sealed and campus visitors were greeted with suspicion. Our school had changed.
Afterward, some of my students asked me about the steps we were taking to keep our school safe. I never got the sense any of them were asking maliciously. I never got the sense any of them asked for any reason other than reassurance, but I also never gave them a straight answer. Instead, I spoke vaguely about a meeting we attended, a checklist we were given or the training we had undergone, but I never offered any details. In doing so, I hoped to reassure them that appropriate measures were being taken. The science teacher related to me after the incident that a well-meaning, but poorly trained staff member at the nearby school had taken action in a way that had exposed a vulnerability in the school’s preparedness plan. I suggested that he not mention it to anyone outside law enforcement and the administration.
Our students weren’t naïve. I’m sure they figured out that there was a reason why they suddenly started returning from the restroom to find their classrooms locked, and they surely realized it was no coincidence when every teacher suddenly decided their classroom would look better with curtains in the windows. I dutifully carried out each round of safety protocols that followed, because whether I liked them or not, I had a choice as to whether to work at that school.
Our students didn’t have that choice.