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
“For years, lockdown has been a typical response for schools. But as it has evolved over the years, that’s not enough, especially if you’re in a contained area,” says David Buerger, director of safety and security at Bullis School in Potomac, which has instituted an enhanced lockdown protocol similar to the “Avoid, Deny, Defend” approach. “For a normal type of threat, that’s fine, but if it is an active person threatening to do harm to students or adults, you really need to have some type of alternative in place.”
While some private schools are including drills in the training, MCPS mostly is educating staff and students through discussions, acknowledging that drills could cause needless anxiety—though a few schools are conducting actual drills, according to officials. No matter the format, school administrators say the training focuses on developing situational awareness by asking staff and students to consider their surroundings—thinking ahead about how to escape or barricade a room and what items could be used to defend themselves.
At St. Jane de Chantal School in Bethesda, staff received ALICE training that included how to punch and disarm someone who has a gun, as was required of all Catholic schools by the Archdiocese of Washington, according to Principal Elizabeth Hamilton. “I first thought, ‘Oh God, this is terrible,’ ” Hamilton says of the fall training that taught staff to be aggressive rather than to cower. “It was the best day, because we really did learn a lot about dealing with an active shooter, and they changed our whole mindset on how to handle it.”
MCPS implemented the Lockdown with Options training in high schools beginning last fall. Middle schools were expected to receive the training early this spring, followed by elementary schools. Training for elementary schools, which was being developed at press time, was expected to focus mainly on explaining to younger students that they must follow their teacher’s instructions during an attack, says Ed Clarke, who became the MCPS director of school safety and security in December. During the student training, school counselors and school resource officers are available for those who may be feeling distressed.
In addition to increasing situational awareness, the goal is to empower staff and students. “We certainly don’t want to raise the level of anxiety for teachers, staff or parents,” says Clarke, a retired county police captain who is serving his second stint as the MCPS school security chief and most recently was executive director of the Maryland Center for School Safety for five years. “So it’s about building confidence, giving options.”
At Eastern Middle School, staff watched a 30-minute training video on Feb. 25 featuring Lt. Brian Dillman of the county police department’s Special Operations Division. The message was clear: A traditional lockdown can be effective in some cases, but teachers also must be prepared to take action. “We have a culture now that has no idea of their situational awareness, has no idea what’s going on around them because they spend most of their lives looking at a 5-inch screen,” Dillman says in the video.
He advises teachers to flee with students if it’s the best and safest option, even if they have to leave behind some students who are not in the classroom at the time, noting that MCPS is developing a reunification protocol for when a crisis ends. “I’d much rather you explain [that decision] rather than [say], ‘Well, I insisted they stay here,’ and now that person is dead as a result of that decision,” Dillman says in the video.
When going into a lockdown is the best course, teachers should position themselves and students against a wall where they can’t be seen and be ready to fight if an attacker breaches the door. “It’s about positioning. It’s about being able to grab the gun, fight the perpetrator,” Dillman says. “There’s nothing fair about the way you fight because this is a fight for your life. It’s strikes to the head, to the throat, to the groin area, and taking the gun.”
After watching the training video, some staff members said they were worried that they would be held culpable if they made the wrong decision. “It’s a different way of thinking,” says Melanie Wilson Martinez, who teaches sixth-grade special education students at Eastern. “I’m still trying to get around [the idea of] running without knowing where my guys are.”
English teacher Michelle Ray, who started teaching around the time of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, says getting permission to act was reassuring. “I’m glad they’re doing this because I think about this all the time,” she says. “It’s good to have a plan and to have thought it through, and to have more ability to take control.”
The safety protocol has drawn mixed reactions from students, parents and educators across the school district, with some worried about creating a culture of fear among students who’ve grown up in an era of school shootings and emergency drills. Schools already are required to hold at least six drills annually, including those for severe weather and fire. “Everybody is anxious about this, right, and people deal with anxiety in different ways, so we’ve seen the gamut in responses from the parent community,” says Gillian Huebner, the parent of a student at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington and chair of the school climate and safety committee of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations (MCCPTA). “The whole school system is aware of how just uncomfortable this is for everybody, including the staff who have to carry it out.”
After the Parkland shooting, Huebner says, MCCPTA officials heard from parents, some of whom worked in the security sector, who were “furious that MCPS hadn’t upgraded the drills to include Lockdown with Options…and now that they’re doing it, you’re hearing from a whole other set of parents who are like, ‘This is so traumatizing for my kids and I don’t want this happening.’ ”
Some parents have said they want to keep their kids home on the day of training, and that they don’t want their children “to feel like they have to defend themselves against a gunman,” Huebner says.
Clarke says MCPS officials are informing parents about the training through emails and messages on the MCPS website so they know what to expect. Five community meetings on school security organized by MCPS and the MCCPTA were held in February and March, but drew few attendees.
Mercedita Roxas-Murray, president of the Walt Whitman High School Parent Teacher Student Association, says it’s important for teachers and students to talk about what they should do if an attack occurs—even if the likelihood is small. “I’d rather they be prepared for something to never happen than to be unprepared for something that does happen,” she says.
After the training at Eastern Middle School, students and teachers discussed how it could be tailored to their school, says Principal Matt Johnson. Students “liked the idea that the adult in that classroom has a plan and everybody’s a part of it,” he says. Only one student at Eastern, which has an enrollment of about 1,000, visited a school counselor to talk about the training in the days after it was held, Johnson says.