School Lockdowns: Unnerving But Not Unusual

Lockdowns proving to be core to school security, but need to be age-appropriate

Ashten Fulk's second-grade vocabulary now includes the phrase "modified lockdown." As in, "Mommy, guess what! We were in modified lockdown today."

Thankfully, when the sentence came out of 7-year-old Ashten's mouth this week, Denise Fulk knew what her daughter was talking about.

School lockdowns are as much a part of today's school culture as dry-erase boards and staggered lunches. In Hillsborough County, the nation's ninth-largest school district with more than 200 schools, lockdowns are almost a daily occurrence, according to school security chief David Friedberg.

Other Tampa Bay area districts say they can't be sure how often lockdowns occur. Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties do not keep exact figures. But most school officials agree that lockdowns - during which students can't leave their classrooms and entry to campus is restricted - are one of the most common crisis tactics when a threat to campus safety lurks.

Principals call for lockdowns when a bank robber is on the loose nearby, when a noncustodial parent arrives at the office and demands to see his or her child, or any time an administrator deems that a lockdown might be needed to keep kids safe. In east Hillsborough last week, six schools were told to "shelter-in-place" - similar to a lockdown - after an unidentified smell of ammonia wafted over the area. The same day, the school district ordered a modified lockdown of every school in Hillsborough while authorities searched for the man suspected of killing a Polk County deputy.

"It's a reactive, proactive, preventative measure," said Friedberg, who simultaneously bemoans that such safety plans are necessary in today's world.

No one questions the importance of keeping kids safe. But some wonder whether the frequency of the practice might take its toll on children's sense of security.

On Wednesday night, Westchase Elementary first-grader Amber Sundland couldn't sleep after her school was placed in lockdown and eventually evacuated. Deputies responded to a home burglary near the campus before noon. As dogs and deputies searched for the burglars, students spent the rest of their school day in lockdown, and some were bused to another school for pickup.

"She was scared they were going to break in and steal her backpack," said Amber's father, Atle Sundland. "She didn't want to lose her homework."

The Sundlands calmed their daughter by allowing her to sleep with them that night. By the next day, Sundland said, Amber seemed to have forgotten about it.

School officials say they do their best to remain calm for children during lockdowns.

"Nobody gets ruffled. Nobody gets excited," said Barbara Pittman, principal at Caminiti Exceptional Center, which was placed in lockdown last fall after a report of a boy with a gun nearby.

Lockdowns and so-called modified lockdowns are handled differently in different districts. Generally, a principal speaks over the intercom and the school radio and signals the magic word. In Hillsborough, that word is simply what Friedberg jokingly calls the "secret squirrel code" because there's nothing secret about it:

"Lockdown," the voice on the intercom says.

Children in exposed areas are shuffled into secure rooms away from windows and doors. Doors are locked, lights are turned off and shades are drawn. The principal quickly e-mails teachers to let them know more details about the extent of the threat.

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