School Lockdowns

Much of the work done to prepare for school crisis situations focuses on active-shooter situations. This is only natural, since the media has focused extensively on extremely rare but deadly targeted acts of violence at schools. However, this overemphasis on active-shooter situations has created a situation where school officials are often not able to properly implement a lockdown for some of the most common school crisis situations that often require them.

In fact, school officials have failed to implement a lockdown for situations including single-victim school shootings, aggressive persons, intruders with other types of weapons and other dangerous situations. During our assessment work with more than 2,000 schools, our analysts have conducted more than 1,500 school crisis simulations. Using scripted and video school crisis scenarios and scoring instruments, we have been able to more accurately gauge how school staff will react to a wide array of life and death situations in the first critical 30 seconds of an incident. Roughly 70 percent of the time, school employees fail to think to initiate a lockdown for situations that do not involve a person firing a gun.

This matches what we are seeing in our work with clients where crisis events have already taken place. For example, in a forensic analysis of a single-victim school shooting where an active-shooter exercise had been conducted and unusually vast levels of funding had been expended on emergency preparedness, a lockdown was not called for more than eight minutes after a building administrator reached a student who had been shot. We see many instances where school officials fail to lockdown because the lockdown protocols and training are poorly structured. For example, nationally, school employees regularly fail to implement a lockdown for scenarios depicting the following types of situations:
  • an out-of-control woman brandishing a large knife in the school office;
  • a dangerous mentally ill woman brandishing a butcher knife in the school cafeteria;
  • an out-of-control parent threatening office staff with a claw hammer;
  • an intoxicated man brandishing a large metal crowbar;
  • a man who appears to be angry and focused who refuses to stop and identify himself by multiple school employees; and
  • an intoxicated man waving a handgun outside of a school with students present in the area.

These assessments have included districts that have completed major emergency management grant projects. In one example, the following two simple things caused the high fail rate in one urban district in the Chicago area.
  1. Their emergency preparedness training program overemphasized active-shooter situations, inadvertently conditioning employees to think of lockdown in association with this one extreme, unusual and unlikely type of situation to the exclusion of other more likely threats, such as those depicted above.
  2. The district’s lockdown protocol uses an approach in which the threat is based on location rather than nature of the threat. By separating lockdown options by categorization as “inside” threats (requiring more extreme emergency actions such as moving away from the door and getting on the floor), and “outside” threats (requiring less extreme actions), employees under even mild stress were unable to pick a solution that is appropriate to the scenario posed and do not think to implement a lockdown.
Using the location of the incident rather than the level of the threat as a driving force in lockdown protocols can be a deadly practice. The, unfortunately, all-too-common “inside” versus “outside” approach to lockdowns has resulted in missed opportunities to prevent injury and trauma. It also increases exposure to civil liability because the approach is counter to research on how the human mind and body functions under life and death stress. I have also observed deadly gaps with this approach in my work with clients on seven different active-shooter situations in American and Canadian schools.

The ability of any staff member in a school to implement the lockdown process during the first critical 30 seconds of an event — no matter which employee becomes aware of the threat, where they are in the school or the nature of the threat — is a life and death consideration.

The inability of school staff to implement emergency procedures such as school lockdowns as soon as they detect a threat has resulted in tragedy. Fortunately, rapidly implemented and well-thought-out lockdown protocols have and can continue to prevent mass casualties in school-crisis situations.

Michael S. Dorn serves as the executive editor for Safe Havens International Inc., a nonprofit school safety center. Hey keynotes conferences internationally and has published more than two dozen books on school safety. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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