A school lockdown can be stressful for students, families, and educators—and that’s true even if law enforcement officers later determine that no one was in any danger.
For the moments students huddle under desks and in dark corners, uncertain of what is happening in their school, it feels like the real thing. The same is true for parents, who receive panicked text messages from their children and often see rumors spread on social media.
Non-drill lockdowns are more common than the public realizes, school safety experts told Education Week. And they’ve been even more common recently as clusters of schools are targeted with “swatting,” in which a caller makes a false claim to police that there is a shooting in progress at a school. Callers may even give specific details, like room numbers, to provoke chaos and an overwhelming response from law enforcement.
Here are some tips about how to prepare for a range of lockdown events, and what to do after they are over.
Before a lockdown ever takes place:
- School districts should regularly communicate with families about their plan for lockdown events, what sorts of events might lead to a lockdown, how administrators will determine that a building is safe, and that they will communicate with families during emergencies, said Amy Klinger, co-founder of the Educator’s School Safety Network, a safety consulting organization.
- Information about lockdown and safety protocols should be included in routine places, like back-to-school materials, so parents can process it in a non-crisis setting, Klinger said.
- Schools should prepare for potential crisis events by including local law enforcement in safety planning and reviewing logistical issues like building access, said Andrew Lavier, the principal of Alamosa High School in Alamosa, Colo., which locked down because of a swatting call this week.
During a lockdown:
- Administrators should communicate with families as clearly and specifically as possible about what precautions schools are taking and why, Klinger said. Use tools like mass texting systems to provide frequent updates.
- Lavier provided multiple updates to parents during his building’s lockdown. Once the classroom involved in the false police report was deemed safe, the district alerted parents through a messaging app that police were carefully sweeping the building as an added precaution.
- Be sure teachers are aware of the needs of students with disabilities, English learners, and students who’ve experienced trauma or violence. These students may need extra support to conduct safety protocols or to process what is happening.
After a lockdown:
- Provide teachers and staff ways to debrief about what worked and what didn’t. Lavier, for example, held a meeting the next day to talk through how the procedures they’d practiced in drills worked in a real emergency situation.
- Use educator feedback as an opportunity to improve emergency plans related to issues like building access, hardware, and plans to reunite students with their families.
- Educators may find it useful to debrief with students after a lockdown, Klinger said. They can review what procedures they used, how those procedures compared with drills students have done in the past, how students feel now, and how school leaders work to keep them safe. For example, a 2021 Kentucky state resource created with input from educators in Paducah and in Marshall County—two districts that have previously experienced mass shootings—recommends “calm down” strategies that can be used after lockdowns or drills. That might include breathing exercises or asking students to “ground themselves” by naming things they can see, smell, and feel.
- In the case of a swatting incident, police may have dramatically entered a specific classroom involved in a false report, and those students may need extra support returning to normal. In Alamosa, Lavier and the responding officer returned the next day to calmly discuss the situation with students in that initial classroom.
- Many districts that have experienced swatting calls have made additional counselors available in the days after the return to class.
Communicating with families after a swatting incident:
Inform parents about the nature of the incident and how the district responded. The AASA, the School Superintendents Association, worked with Donovan Communications to create this letter template that may be a useful starting point.
“While this threat was a likely hoax, we understand the anxiety a situation like this can cause for our families, students, staff, and community,” that letter says. “Please know that our top priority is the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff. We take any and all reports of potential threats seriously, and we are making every effort to maintain an environment where students and staff feel safe.”