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Lock downs err on the side of caution

POSTED November 2, 2011 8:26 a.m.
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On April 20, 1999, the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado ended up with 12 students and one teacher killed by two students who went on a shooting rampage. Twenty-one students were injured.

Columbine set the stage for many school safety improvements, along with standardized plans for critical incident management. The changes have served our schools well.

One procedure adhered to almost universally in the education system is the use of "lock downs" during instances when a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation takes place on or near a campus. In extreme cases, for example, a shooting situation, hostage event, large fight, a threat of kidnapping or any other form of threatened harm to students or staff, the affected school(s) will immediately lock all doors and entry/exit gates and prohibit all persons (except the police) from entering or leaving the campus until the situation is deemed safe. Similarly, when law enforcement is chasing or looking for a criminal or other dangerous person in close proximity to a school campus, law enforcement will notify the school administrators, who, without delay, order a lock down.

Many schools have a policy of notifying parents via an automated system to advise them of the lock down. This notification effort serves good purpose, but frequently the details of the situation are not known, or they may not be for public knowledge. The lack of information may cause parents to worry, prompting them to call the local police agency or the school, or, in some instances, parents travel directly to the school to find out if their children are safe and to learn about what is going on. This protective, parental reaction is natural, and understandable, but often makes the work of officials more difficult by tying up the phones and staff when they are trying to resolve the threat/problem safely.

The threshold for placing a school in lock down is relatively low, and events like Columbine are certainly infrequent. Our policy is to err on the side of safety. Even if the possible threat is unlikely to affect the schools, we would rather create the inconvenience of a lock down than end up with injuries or deaths that could otherwise be avoided. The most common reason for lock downs is for precautionary reasons, when the police are searching for or pursuing a suspect in a crime that has nothing to do with the schools. The reason for the lock down may be just due to the search or incident taking place nearby. When police execute high-risk search or arrest warrants near schools, lock downs are also called for, sometimes before the activity starts, anticipating the possibility that suspects may try to escape.

It may seem that lock downs are more frequent these days, but part of this perception is fueled by the fact that police and schools are doing a better job of communicating with each other, and the schools now have improved communications capabilities. Some information cannot be provided on a timely basis, leaving parents thinking of worst-case scenarios taking place. And while it seems irresistible to call to get more information, know that in doing so it strains the police and school resources and may actually add to the problems being dealt with. School officials do what they can to provide clarifying information as soon as possible, but as you can imagine, mass communications under emergency circumstances is extremely challenging. Moreover, it is critical that whatever information is provided is accurate.

Parents, school officials, teachers, the police, and the community as a whole all share a distinct common interest: the absolute safety of the children attending our schools.

It is my hope that this article helps public understanding of how outside interference can impede our efforts to keep children safe, and that parents can have confidence in how we are looking after their children.
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