Safety fear gives school days new feature: Lockdowns

Two robbery suspects were on the loose in south Fulton County.

Where could they go?

Fulton County school officials worried they might come onto the grounds of a nearby elementary and middle school, so they ordered a lockdown: doors closed; no one enters or leaves the campus.

The incident, which happened Jan. 13, was resolved peacefully when the suspects were arrested.

School lockdowns, and preparing for a possible intruder, have become a fact of life for many metro Atlanta schools. That same day, DeKalb County school officials locked down five schools because of criminal and police activity near those campuses.

School safety has changed in recent years with horrific mass shootings such as the 2012 incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 students and six staff members were killed by a gunman, still fresh in the minds of many Americans. In most cases, a school lockdown is ordered by a principal or school resource officer when there are armed suspects nearby or a fight between students gets particularly violent. In less urban areas, lockdowns have been ordered when a hunter errantly encroaches on school property.

“Now, because of the times that we’re in, people are more conscious of the need” for lockdowns, said Shannon Flounnory, executive director for safety and security in the Fulton County School District.

Metro Atlanta schools not only conduct fire drills and tornado drills, but most now teach students — from elementary school upward — what to do during a school lockdown.

“Many of them treat it the same as math class,” said Flounnory. “It’s a part of school now. It’s a part of the times that we’re in now.”

In Fulton County, there are “soft” lockdowns and “hard” lockdowns. A hard lockdown includes not allowing anyone to leave a classroom. In Cherokee County, students are taught to stay away from windows and doors and to move near cinder block walls in a dangerous situation. DeKalb has three levels of lockdowns. The protocol for the most serious lockdown level includes locking classroom doors, turning lights out and possibly barricading the doors.

In one of the Jan. 13 incidents in DeKalb, the activity was two miles away. Were officials being overly cautious?

“When you have a suspect at large, you don’t know which direction they may be going,” said Don Smith, the DeKalb school district’s public safety director.

The general theory in DeKalb and other school districts is, as Smith said, “if we are going to err, we are going to err on the side of caution.”

Johns Creek High School student Andrew Liang said he and his classmates are trained for lockdowns once every few months. The drills, he said, typically last about 10 minutes. Liang said half of the students stayed home from school one day last school year when rumors of a mass shooting spread through the school. School officials handled the situation well, he said, but Liang said he’d like to see more drills.

“Our school should practice lockdowns more often, and make them second-nature for students and teachers,” he said.

Some PTA organizations have helped pay for systems that lock classroom doors during a lockdown. One thing the state’s PTA leader would like to see parents do is be more vigilant about providing contact information so they can notified if there is a school lockdown.

Law enforcement’s “ability to communicate is as good as the information parents give them,” said Georgia PTA President Lisa-Marie Haygood, who has a daughter in the Cherokee County school system.

School safety officials say students overwhelmingly follow lockdown procedures and take drills seriously. One law enforcement concern is students using social media during a crisis situation, possibly alerting an intruder where students may be on campus. Officials recognize there’s little they can do about that.

“It could make a bad situation worse,” Smith said. “But on the flip side,” the information could help authorities and “save lives.”

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