Preparing for the Worst
When it comes to keeping students safe from an armed assailant, local schools say hiding in a locked classroom is no longer the only option
At 9 a.m. on a late February morning, English teacher Karen Quintiere is standing in front of her first-period class of seventh-graders talking about what would happen if a gunman was stalking the halls of Eastern Middle School. On a large projector screen behind her is a PowerPoint presentation titled “Eastern Middle School Active Assailant Scenarios.”
The presentation is about a new safety protocol, “Lockdown with Options,” that Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is adopting to help prepare schools to handle an incident involving an armed assailant, something Quintiere tells her students she never had to think about while attending public school in Montgomery County as a child.
“This is a serious thing, and unfortunately it’s part of our world today,” she says. “Bottom line, what you all should keep in mind at all times—anyone who ever came into this room to do anyone harm would have to get through me first, and they’re not going to get through. So, any anxiety you are feeling, it’s normal, and this is a scary thing.”
A veteran teacher at the Silver Spring school, Quintiere says the protocol—one of several emergency procedures used by MCPS—is designed to help teachers and students figure out what to do if administrators couldn’t provide direction if an incident occurred.
As her students listen quietly, she explains that the training was adapted by the Montgomery County Police Department and MCPS from a national model called “Avoid, Deny, Defend.” The PowerPoint presentation depicts some possible scenarios in which teachers and students would have to decide how to respond after school officials called for a Lockdown with Options, including whether to flee the building.
One scenario puts students and a teacher in a classroom that isn’t near a stairwell or exit. The class doesn’t hear gunshots, but it hasn’t received additional instructions from officials. In that situation, the training advises the class to lock down the room, barricade the door with furniture and prepare to defend themselves.
Another scenario asks students to consider what they would do if they are in a hallway when they hear faint gunshots in a distant part of the school. In this case, students are advised to go into the nearest classroom or office and follow lockdown procedures. If a room is not available, students are to run to the nearest exit and keep running until they can’t see the school.
Quintiere tells her students that she has long thought about what she’d do in a crisis, “where would I put people, where would I hide, what weapons would be at my disposal. These are all things that go through almost every teacher’s head at this school.”
Noting the awkward layout of her narrow rectangular classroom, she points out how she has already moved a bookshelf to block a door leading to an adjoining classroom, how she would herd the kids through another door that leads into a book storage room where they would crouch behind tall metal shelves lined with textbooks and paperbacks, even how she would squirt hand sanitizer in front of the classroom door, hopefully causing an intruder to slip as she prepared to tackle the person.
“As a last resort, if we had no other choice, then we move to defend. That means that we’re fighting,” she tells the class. “Again, fighting means me first, that anyone coming in here is going to deal with me first. So it would not come to you because I would take that person down.”
But if an intruder did get past her, “we would be looking at what we would use as weapons.”
As Quintiere speaks, students raise their hands with suggestions and questions. Some point to a bookshelf packed with large, heavy literature textbooks that they could grab and use as weapons. One suggests the students could escape by jumping out the narrow windows at the back of the classroom, but Quintiere reminds the class that those windows lead to an inner courtyard where they could be trapped.
Another student asks what she should do if she came out of the bathroom and found the nearest classroom door locked. “You go back into that bathroom and you hide yourself as best you can and you find anything you can use as a weapon,” Quintiere advises. She answers each question with authority—in the way she urged fellow teachers to respond when they received their own training two days earlier with county police officers.
“Even if you don’t feel confident, [the students] have to think that you are a badass,” she says after the 30-minute classroom training session. “They have to think that even though I am a 48-year-old woman, I will kick anyone’s butt who comes into that room, and I will risk my life. To me, that’s part of the job now. You have to be willing to risk your life.”
No teacher or administrator wants to consider that they might have to involve their students in fending off an armed intruder. But for local public and private schools, training teachers and students for such a scenario has become as important to school safety as securing buildings and fostering trust so that students feel comfortable reporting anything that’s troubling.
The proactive approach—such as the training used by MCPS and the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training employed by some local private schools—expands beyond the traditional practice of locking doors, turning off lights and taking cover in rooms while waiting for help to arrive. By providing the active-shooter training to staff and students, MCPS is adopting an approach that may soon be required by law in all Maryland public schools, officials say. The Maryland Safe to Learn Act of 2018 authorizes the state Department of Education to adopt regulations regarding the use of age-appropriate active-shooter drills, and officials say they expect such drills will be added to those already practiced in schools.
Adoption of the “Avoid, Deny, Defend” model, currently used in other school districts and many workplaces across the nation, marks a sea change in the way educators are being trained to respond to school threats. For MCPS, the change in protocol comes in the wake of the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, and a deadly shooting about five weeks later at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Along with proposals to arm teachers, the approach is fueling heated conversations across the country about how far schools should go to keep kids safe.