Twice in the past month, hundreds of parents have swarmed to Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools, fearing for the safety of their children locked inside.
Meanwhile, the mother of a seventh-grader was devastated to learn her son believed he was about to die during a lockdown that was, according to school officials, triggered by a relatively minor incident. She says her son wasn’t told the reason for the lockdown and she knew nothing about it until her younger children told her what their brother had gone through.
These episodes show the difficulty of getting school lockdowns right — a task that experts say is difficult but vital.
Overreact and a school district can fuel panic and, if dramatic announcements are overused, leave students and their families jaded when a real threat arises. Communicate too little and both students and adults may lose trust.
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“You don’t want to create fear with parents,” says Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council in Lawrence, Mass. He recommends giving parents a steady stream of safety information, using meetings, school newsletters, social media and news media.
On Oct. 29, a student at Butler High in Matthews was fatally shot by another during a scuffle outside the school cafeteria. In the three weeks that followed guns turned up at four more Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools, including a Nov. 13 incident at Olympic High that led to a lockdown and the arrest of three students on gun charges.
Faced with the barrage of frightening incidents, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has announced a slate of safety reforms, including random backpack searches and “wanding” at high schools starting in January. The district also says it will do a better job of informing parents about lockdowns and drills, while stepping up “active survival” training to prepare for a worst-case scenario.
“We are strengthening our crisis communication plan with more frequent updates and a wider messaging to families, including instant text messaging,” Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said at a Nov. 16 news conference.
CMS expects each school to practice lockdowns at least twice a year. The district does not track the number of actual lockdowns, said Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ.
Lockdown drills aren’t glamorous. Since a mass school shooting in Columbine, Colo., in 1999, practices in which children sit quietly in darkened, locked classrooms have become routine.
But when Washington Post reporters recently polled 34 schools that have experienced shootings they heard that such exercises are more effective than more dramatic — and costly — physical barriers and high-tech gadgets.
“The schools that have experienced gun violence consistently cited simple, well-established safety measures as most effective at minimizing harm: drills that teach rapid lockdown and evacuation strategies, doors that can be secured in seconds and resource officers, or other adults, who act quickly,” reporters John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich wrote earlier this month.
Humdrum or horrific?
Righteous Keitt, a senior at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, estimates he’s experienced half a dozen lockdowns during his four years at the west Charlotte magnet school. They’ve been triggered by everything from crime in the nearby community to a student bringing an unloaded gun to school, Keitt said.
Keitt, who is president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council that’s advising Wilcox on safety, says he’s not particularly rattled by lockdowns, let alone drills.
“We’ve had so many,” he said. “At some point you can tell when it’s a fake drill and when it’s real.”
But drills and lockdowns can be terrifying to parents and children who picture reports of mass shootings across America. Drills usually involve herding students to a spot away from doors and windows, turning off lights, locking the door and staying quiet, as they would if a shooter were stalking the halls.
Jennifer Sutton says she was rattled when she learned her second-grade daughter had been through a lockdown at Mountain Island Day Community Charter School, a K-12 school in west Charlotte, in early September. She said she thought by choosing a small private school (which later converted to a public charter school) she was insulating her daughter from danger.
Now, even though no harm came and her daughter was unfazed, Sutton says she’s thinking about home-schooling next year. A notice from the school said only that “a possible concern” was investigated and police “determined there was no imminent threat to the school community.”
“I guess I was under the assumption that it was private and that somehow made it better, and that’s not true,” said Sutton, who contacted the Observer after the shooting at Butler High. “Every time there’s a shooting or a lockdown it makes me want to protect her, and I don’t know how.”
Claudia Charles, whose 12-year-old son wrote a farewell letter to his family during a lockdown at Governors’ Village STEM Academy, says it was hearing about the shooting in nearby Matthews that made her son react so strongly. CMS officials say the Nov. 9 “internal lockdown” at Governors’ Village, a K-8 magnet school, was prompted by an anonymous threat and didn’t even require teachers to turn off the lights and “shelter in place.”
But Ajani Dartiguenave, Charles’ son, told the Observer he didn’t understand that label and only grasped that the lockdown wasn’t a drill. He said he was told afterward that the school would explain the reason for the lockdown to parents.
CMS says the school sent two notices to parents: Once when the lockdown began, explaining that it was “a safety precaution to an anonymous threat,” and about 35 minutes later when it was lifted. Charles says she didn’t get them.
“The lockdowns are different after Butler,” Charles said, “because a student was actually killed and it took place on school grounds in front of other students.”
How much detail?
Charles said CMS should start telling students in advance if there’s going to be a practice lockdown, to spare them the anxiety of imagining a shooting.
But Russ said police advise against that.
“Law enforcement experts advise that drills are more effective as training for real situations when the schedule for drills is not shared in advance,” Russ said in an email responding to Observer questions. “During drills, law enforcement officers record times for lockdown completion, assess areas for improvement and work with school leaders to reduce times to complete lockdown and other measures needed to help ensure safety.”
He said it’s also up to police to decide whether a school should lock down in the face of a threat, a tip that a student has a weapon or other risky situations. Once a lockdown is called, schools are supposed to notify parents promptly if police believe the situation is urgent or if the lockdown “remains in place for an extended period of time,” Russ said.
Families should be notified about all lockdowns and drills after the fact, Russ said. He said CMS is working to make sure that’s happening consistently.
The Educator’s School Safety Network, a national not-for-profit training and consulting organization advises school districts to group potential threats in a three-tiered system and make sure parents understand that system before anything happens.
That system begins with issues outside a school that don’t pose a direct threat but might trigger a lockdown of the campus. A second tier includes internal situations that present no immediate danger to students or staff, and a third tier is for serious internal threats.
“People are a lot more receptive to reasonable policies and procedures when it’s not in the heat of the moment,” said operations director Amanda Klinger.
But Lavarello, of the School Safety Advocacy Council, said such categories can actually confuse stressed parents when the message lands. Instead, he suggests simply telling parents what’s going on. “Plain language usually works the best because anxiety levels are high,” he said.
Where do parents go?
Regardless of what CMS shares, older students send text messages and post on social media as soon as they get wind of a problem. At Butler on Oct. 29 and at Olympic High on Nov. 13, that meant that parents and news media converged on campuses even as police and educators were trying to sort out what was happening.
Both campuses were on lockdown: Butler because one student shot another after a brief fight outside the school cafeteria, Olympic because three students had posted a photo and video of themselves with a gun. That meant no one was allowed on campus. Roads quickly clogged with parked vehicles. Anxious parents, sometimes with younger children in tow, walked in the street, competing for space with passersby distracted by the hullabaloo.
At Butler, parents said they got mixed signals from police about whether they should go to nearby Elevation Church. Some ended up walking angrily across Independence Boulevard from the church to the school.
Russ says each school has a designated evacuation site, but those aren’t announced in advance “to protect the safety of students and staff.” He said the district is learning about communication and traffic control from both recent incidents, in which parents were allowed to sign their children out of school once the lockdown was lifted.
One lesson from Butler, Russ and Wilcox say, is that when something bad happens CMS needs to inform parents quickly and frequently, even before officials have nailed down all the details. Wilcox acknowledges that CMS waited too long between the notice that a student had been shot and the first follow-up, almost an hour later.
Along with all the changes the district plans to make, they’ve asked families to do their part by making sure schools have current contact information and by following CMS on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (@CharMeckSchools), where updates will be shared.
CMS also plans a series of town hall meetings on safety. Those plans and other updates will be posted at www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmssafety.