Locking down safe schools

Published 9:50 am Wednesday, December 21, 2011

School officials: Safety techniques don’t always mean imminent threat

Ellis Middle School’s Code Red lockdown on Tuesday lasted less than three minutes. The school went into lockdown to locate a student at 1:42 p.m. and lifted the lockdown at 1:45 p.m., according to an Austin Public School notification e-mail.

While parents and older generations may think lockdowns are for serious threats, education officials and current students are getting used to lockdowns and an increased awareness on student safety.

“Kids can’t learn in an environment when they’re not safe,” said Austin High School Principal Brad Bergstrom.

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Bergstrom knows plenty about lockdowns. Austin High School has gone through two lockdowns this school year, and Bergstrom said on average AHS has about six to eight situations a year that warrant serious concern, which could include lockdowns.

Yet district officials say a lockdown isn’t so much a cause for concern as it is a procedure to help secure students in sometimes concerning situations. As school safety has become an increasing concern nationwide over the past two decades, educators are evolving in their response to school safety issues.

While lockdowns at AHS could be because of potential threats to students’ safety, Ellis lockdowns are generally called so school staff can locate a student.

“It traditionally tends to be (a situation where) we can’t find a student,” said Ellis Principal Katie Berglund. “Either a student is just lost or leaves the classroom upset.”

For Ellis, calling a lockdown means being able to find a student and prevent a problem before it starts.

“It’s the quickest way to isolate the situation,” Berglund said.

AHS officials approach lockdowns in a similar manner, though the issues AHS students deal with are a bit more complex than the issues at Ellis. A bomb threat on a bathroom wall prompted a lockdown this fall, for example.

Bergstrom said the district has a framework to deal with issues like a bomb threat. School administrators will act on tips given from students, staff and parents when they are notified of a situation. Usually the students give AHS officials tips, followed by teachers and the occasional parent, according to Bergstrom.

These tips don’t happen all the time, though they’ve happened enough to cause the district to form a set policy over the years.

“It’s a pretty thorough policy,” said Superintendent David Krenz. Krenz said the district’s safety policy is modeled after national safety standards in schools.

When administrators hear of a concern that a student might do something to other students or themselves, they have to figure out the date, time and location that the incident will allegedly occur. Almost all tips administrators receive are eventually proven false, according to Bergstrom.

Yet it’s the administration’s job to determine whether an incident could take place. Bergstrom said he likely to be cautious when dealing with school safety. That means administrators will pay increasing attention to the school atmosphere if they can’t determine a tip to be untrue.

“If our kids are in danger, we’re going to do something very decisive,” Bergstrom said.

There’s no real playbook for dealing with a tip, as each situation is under unique circumstances. But there are guidelines for what to do in certain situations and ultimately, it is the staff’s call.

Yet school officials say social media and Internet activity is feeding school safety misperceptions. Parents on Facebook grew concerned on Dec. 12 when they heard administrators were in the halls and enforcing school backpack and handbag policies more than usual.

A lockdown was never called, though parents were concerned something was happening. School staff sent out information at about 9:45 p.m. that day saying administrators were watching the school more closely and that police and staff had conducted a sweep of the school Sunday night.

Though Bergstrom said the social media ended up feeding misperception, he acknowledged school officials are looking at providing more information to the public sooner in future situations. In addition, Bergstrom said there was strong feedback from students and staff over all the administration being in the halls.

“We are going to be moving forward with the idea of us being much more visible in the building,” he said.

Schools are required to practice five lockdowns every year, along with five fire drills and a severe weather drill. With such practice, students and staff are getting used to lockdowns. Bergstrom said he hopes to practice a lockdown immediately after school when students are trying to get out of class so they’re prepared in case a real lockdown is called.

School officials also review procedures after every lockdown to analyze what went right and wrong.

“They’re more accepted,” Berglund said. “People don’t become reactionary about them. I think administrators are more willing to use them in a proactive manner.”