School Lockdowns: Unnerving But Not Unusual

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

Phyllis Coomer, a school psychologist who works at Westchase, said one key to helping kids stay calm is communicating early and honestly about the reason for the measure.

For example, Coomer said, a teacher this week might have said: "We're in a lockdown because there's a stranger on campus and we want to keep you safe."

Teachers practice the lockdowns just as they would fire drills. They rehearse the plan. And then, after every lockdown, they review what could have been done better.

Myra Eggert, a licensed mental health care specialist in Tampa who works with children, recalled working with a child in a school when a lockdown announcement came over the intercom. The child matter-of-factly said something like, "That means we can't leave the room," Eggert said. The child seemed otherwise unaffected.

After a series of school shootings around the country in the past few weeks, few question that schools must take action to protect children from criminal threats.

Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Gary Terry noted that lockdowns make logistical sense any time law enforcement is seeking a suspect. They clear the hallways and campus and give deputies a way to easily assess the safety of children, if necessary.

Sometimes, the threat is internal.

Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg was locked down three times in January. In one instance, four students were arrested after other students saw them playing with guns in the school gymnasium.

Two weeks later, police officers were called to the school after a student found an airgun box in the boys locker room. The school was locked down a week after that when a 22-year-old man placed several guns inside a brown paper bag after fighting with his mother, who lived in the area.

Eggert said such measures do seem to have a mounting effect on children's sense of security. Lockdowns, news reports and the concerns of the adults around him can affect a child's outlook.

"We do see an awful lot of anxiety from children, and it's just general," she said. "They're just little sponges, and a sponge can only hold so much."

Friedberg said he recognizes that news of a lockdown can raise concern, especially among parents. To mitigate confusion, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties both have a policy of notifying parents any time safety concerns require them to implement the measure.

At the same time, he regrets that lockdowns are necessary.

"Do I think it's a terrible situation? Do I think it's horrific that we have crisis plans in schools today?" Friedberg said. "Yeah, I think it's horrible. But I also think it's a sign of the times. And I think we would be absolutely wrong not to do what we're doing."

When he watched coverage of the Bailey, Colo., school shooting last week, he said, he noted the calm that students and teachers exhibited as they evacuated the school, single file, in the face of a crisis.

It's a case of how having a plan, knowing the plan and executing the plan perhaps kept a horrific situation from becoming even worse.

So lockdowns might be a good thing.

"I'd much rather be answering your questions today of why I'm doing what I'm doing," he said, "than answering your questions tomorrow about why I didn't do more."