Students, parents request changes to lockdown-drill procedures

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting on Sept. 16 saw many residents — including students — speaking out about active shooter and lockdown drills in the district and their negative impact on students. The drills, which are required by state law, often involve students hiding inside locked rooms, often inside closets, while law enforcement officers sweep school grounds. Students and parents in the community are concerned about the frequency of the drills, leading to local action group SOMA Justice suggesting changes to the district’s emergency drill policy.

Haley, 9, a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School, described at the meeting what the drills are like and how they affect her school day.

“One time I was alone in the bathroom during a lockdown drill and I was very scared and I started to panic,” Haley said. “Last year we had three lockdown drills in one week and I got afraid to be stuck alone in the bathroom again so I stopped drinking water at school. I started to get really bad headaches and I didn’t know why.”

A doctor told Haley she was dehydrated and needed to drink more water, but in her comments to the BOE she said that she is still scared to be alone in the bathroom when a drill begins.

“I’m still scared of lockdowns, even if I’m not in the bathroom,” Haley said. “Please let us have less lockdowns.”

District fifth-grader Lola, age 10, also spoke at the meeting, asking the district to decrease the frequency of lockdown drills.

“One reason I think code red drills should be done differently is because they affect our learning in a negative way,” she said. “When we have a code red drill in the middle of a lesson, we get startled and when the drill is over we forget where we were and have to start over or move on to a different subject. This shows code reds do not help in any way, they just waste time.”

Lola also said she and her classmates are afraid of the drills and the small spaces they are forced into because of them.

“When we have a drill we are forced to go into a hot, small closet and we are all very scared,” she said. “It is very stressful and alarming for kids. This means kids are still traumatized when they have to start learning again. Please consider what kids have to say when you discuss this issue.”

In each drill that 10-year-old Sabine has been through, at least one student has been scared during and after the event. She told BOE members that if students knew the drills were not real, they wouldn’t be as stressful.

“There’s always at least one person that freaks out or cries because of a code red drill,” Sabine said. “While we are under code red drills, we are cramped into a small hiding space like a closet. We are hot and the silence builds up anxiety. We would be a lot less stressed out if the teachers could tell us when we are having the code red drills. If we are going to have code red drills we should have less or a better system.”

Haley, Lola and Sabine were not the only ones at the meeting asking the BOE and administration to make changes to the policy; parents were also advocating for modifications.

“I am here to urge you to have better engagement and to better communicate with parents and with students,” Sara Wakefield, a parent in the district and a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University, said at the meeting. “I would support a forum for students to talk about their experiences. I think the children who spoke here tonight are incredibly brave. Many kids are not willing to do that and I think it’s worth reaching out to them.”

In addition to being a parent in the district, Blue Chevigny is a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma. She spoke to the BOE about the effects traumatic events and simulated drills have on the brain and how children are being affected by the drills.

“As the frequency of drills has increased and the elaboration of drills into simulations of real life scenarios — including surprise reenactments and law enforcement presence — there’s also been an increase in anxiety in young people,” Chevigny said. “Among the reasons for this increase is a loss of sense of safety in school. Despite the intention to ensure school students are safe, the drills instead put children on edge and give children nightmares, make them afraid to be in hallways at school or go to the bathroom.”

She went on to say that even though some students might not react negatively to a drill while it’s happening or directly afterward, students could have a reaction that manifests later.

“The study of trauma has shown us that when something overwhelming happens to us, like a car accident or the loss of a loved one, the nervous system gets out of whack and it takes real processing, patience and reassurance to calm it back down and for the person to reregulate,” Chevigny said. “This altered state is not conducive to learning. We need to ensure that we are doing as much as we can to keep children safe and allow their brains to learn. Our goal should be to conduct safety drills in a reasonable way in a warm, emotionally supported way in a supportive school climate without creating more fear.”

South Orange parent Natalie Peretti said that while she knows the drills are necessary for staff to be prepared in the case of an emergency, she doesn’t want them to cause stress to the students who have to participate in them.

“I’m so thankful for the students and families who have shared their stories about what they have experienced with lockdown drills here tonight and also online,” Peretti said. “I think we should recognize that doing that takes a lot of courage and I think we should believe them. It’s not OK for these drills to cause emotional trauma for any students. The security policies and regulations we have in place must be sensible and evidence-based, while at the same time following state law.”

In his response to the comments that were made, Superintendent Ronald Taylor said the policy changes from SOMA Justice were given to the district’s legal department for review. Administrators are also in the process of talking to mental health professionals and security professionals to help revise the policy. Taylor will then bring the policy to the BOE to make changes.

SOMSD Director of Safety Thomas Shea also spoke at the meeting, and said he agreed with many of the points raised by the students and parents at the meeting. During the summer, he met with school staff, parent organizations and individuals to discuss possible changes to the emergency drill policy.

“To the surprise of many of them, I think, I actually agree,” Shea said. “I equate what’s going on with active shooter drills with teaching your kids about stranger danger. However, we don’t tell kids that there’s an actual danger outside to teach them about stranger danger.”

He acknowledged in his comments that there is a better way to do lockdown drills in the district.

“I’m tasked with the responsibility to protect all the kids of this district,” Shea said. “I employ everyone available to me to help me do that in the best way I know how. But there is a better way. We can communicate better to our staff and kids why we do it, and we can also tell them that it’s a drill as it’s happening. My thought is that if you don’t tell someone it’s a drill, it’s almost counterproductive because if the real thing were to happen they might assume it’s a drill.”

Taylor said he and the administration want to develop an emergency drill policy that is worthy of the students in the district.

BOE Second Vice President Anthony Mazzocchi thanked the students especially for speaking out at the meeting.

“As saddened as I am that we’re talking about this this evening, that is countered by the amazing argumentative essays that were just read and the public speaking that you all did,” he said. “I’m just so proud to live here when you three, who are my daughter’s age, came up here and spoke better than many people I’ve heard speak up there.”

Photos Courtesy of SOMAtv