October 25, 2018
The announcement comes suddenly, “lockdown, lockdown, lockdown” interrupting socratic seminars, math tests, and group discussions. Thoughts of poetry, ecosystems, and spirit week vanish. In their place—fear. We drop our pencils and get up to huddle together in the corner. We wonder what would really happen if there was a shooting in our school. We wonder if we are safe.
This school year, updates to emergency policies are transforming how Howard County schools prepare for potential threats. Teachers have more flexibility to decide the best course of action, and they are allowed to open their door to stranded students during a lockdown, both things that the previously rigid regulations did not permit. Additionally, all emergency drills are now announced with a scenario, and all Howard County High Schools are equipped with a buzz-in system for the front doors.
“Let’s say there was school shooter, and let’s hope that never happens,” said Mr. Richman, Atholton’s Assistant Principal in charge of school security. “Are you better off staying in your classroom with the door closed, or, if you know that it’s safe, and there’s a way out, [going] behind the building?” The new policy allows teachers to decide what the best answer is to this question. He said that the change was sparked at least partially by research that is showing that it may be smarter to leave the building in an emergency, depending on the situation.
The decision is complicated because teachers must take the needs of every student in their class into account. For instance, a class that has a student with crutches or some other physical impediment would probably be safest staying in the classroom. “It’s a question of who do you have with you right now, and what is the smartest, safest thing to do,” said Mr. Richman. Training is ongoing for teachers and administrators who make these decisions, he said, because it is “hard to think when you’re under that kind of stress.
Teachers must take the needs of every student in their class into account.
Some students responded positively to this change. “I think it’s smarter for us to get farther away from the threat,” said freshman Banna Araya. Another freshman, Mason Murray, agreed, saying “I feel like it’s more safe because there’s no point of just staying inside the school. Somebody could just come in the classroom.”
Other students expressed more skepticism. “It’s hard to let some teacher make the judgement for the whole class, and I would hope that they would ask the class ‘do you guys want to leave’ instead,” said Junior Gavin Osborn.
Another new aspect to safety policies this year is that teachers are allowed to open their doors to students in the hallways during a lockdown. Before, teachers were instructed to lock their classroom door and not open it for anyone, even a student who was caught in the bathroom or getting a drink of water when the lockdown was announced. The new policy means that teachers can decide, depending on the situation, if it is safe to let in stranded students.
In previous years, the fire alarm or emergency drill announcement would have no other information; this year, there are scenarios that go along with each drill. Mr. Richman said he anticipates that HCPSS is working towards having fire drill scenarios where certain exits are blocked, so that people have to find another way out.
Yet another new addition to the security system at Atholton is the buzz-in system that was installed for this school year. All the doors are locked after 7:25, so the only way to get in is to press a button and talk to a secretary, who will then unlock the door. Anyone who enters will have to be identified by their HCPSS identification, or by scanning their license and placing a sticker marked “visitor” on their shirt. While the license scanning and sticker policy is not new, the buzz-in system is, and it helps to enforce the license scanning rule while also making it easier to be aware of everyone who enters the building.
Looking ahead, Mr. Richman sees a need to practice emergency drills during fourth period, when students have lunch, even though he “hates the idea.” The difficulties arise because during lunch students are not under the guidance of a staff member. “It’s a difficult situation, but the reality of it is we need to think about that, and know where people are supposed to be,” said Mr. Richman. “We want to make sure everybody is safe.”