Last month, Owensboro police received a report of several shots being fired on Carpenter Drive near Apollo High School. As a result, the school was placed on “lockout,” a response to potential threats during which outdoor activities at the school are canceled and entrance to the building is monitored or denied.
Also in November, the city-county 911 board discussed how to communicate with school officials about incidents that might prompt a lockout or lockdown at a school where after-hours activities are taking place.
Students are a large part of successful lockouts or lockdowns, because students have to know how to react and what to do. Lockdowns have saved lives at schools nationally, such as when a lockdown at a California school kept an armed man from entering the school on Nov. 15. The man fired at the school but left when he couldn’t get inside, but shot five people elsewhere before being killed by police.
When a traumatic event at or near a school takes place, information about the incident will filter into the school at all levels. Even the youngest students will hear something, either from news or social media outlets, or from other students.
For teachers, the question is how to tell students what they need to know about school safety procedures without unnecessarily scaring them or making them feel school is a unsafe place.
Experts with the Kentucky Center for School Safety said there are ways to help children be prepared for emergency situations and cope with the anxiety a school incident can cause.
Damon Fleming, director of student services for Daviess County Public Schools, said how teachers talk to their classes about traumatic school incidents “depends on the age of the child.” He said very young children need to know how to act during a school lockdown, but do not need a lot of details about what the events are supposed to prevent.
“We really don’t talk about the ‘why’ for the drill more than we have to,” Fleming said. “We don’t want them to feel school is an unsafe place.
“They are used to doing fire drills and earthquake drills,” Fleming said. With a lockdown drill, students “see it as, ‘This is another drill we do at school.'”
When there is an incident of school violence elsewhere, DCPS officials try to keep the school day as normal as possible, Fleming said. If a student has questions about an incident, “the teacher will take the student to the guidance counselor to talk one-on-one,” he said.
George Powell, director of student services for Owensboro Public Schools, said school officials don’t talk about the specifics of school incidents when younger students practice lockdown drills.
“What we focus on with our younger students if we do a lockdown — and they’re practiced multiple times a year — is ‘How are you going to react if we go into a lockdown?'”
Talking about what could happen if an armed person tried to enter a school would scare young students Powell said.
When an event like a school shooting occurs somewhere, students will be exposed to the news. When those incidents occur, the Center for School Safety recommends teachers keep to a regular schedule, which will help students feel safe. The center also recommends setting a time to talk about events and to answer questions in a way that’s factual and fits the age of the audience.
Schools should have a policy for talking about traumatic events, said Karen McCuiston, who does training for the Center on School Safety.
“Every school needs to get together and plan what they are going to do the next day” after there is a tragedy, McCuiston said. Children will likely have some information, or at least misinformation, about the event.
“In this day and age, with so much media exposure from TV, or their phones … there’s going to be a lot of talk,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of fear.”
John Akers, executive director for the Center for School Safety, said parents should also play a role by limiting young children’s consumption of news about the incident.
“Parents need to be aware of what’s on the TV” and monitor what children see, Akers said. “If (parents) are watching NBC Nightly News and they’re showing the five-year anniversary of Sandy Hook, (children) don’t need to see that.”
One of the main guidelines the Center for School Safety emphasizes to teachers is that they reassure students that they are safe. Fleming said the county school district also communicates with parents about how teachers are discussing traumatic events with students.
If there is an event that affects a county school, such as the death of a student, “we have a crisis team that responds to the school,” Fleming said. “… The team members will talk to the students and, if need be, will talk to the parents, also.”
Powell said if a student comes to school with questions or concerns about an incident he or she heard about on the news, officials try to help the student without involving others who are not similarly concerned.
“It’s probably handled more on an individual basis at that point,” with a counselor or school psychologist, Powell said.