Board approves changes to lockdown drill policy

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education unanimously approved on first reading changes to its Emergency and Crisis Situations policy at its Oct. 28 meeting, after having heard students and parents describe at a prior meeting the long-term effects lockdown drills have on students. The district will not hold more lockdown drills than the state mandates, in an effort to decrease the anxiety students feel as a result of the drills.

BOE student liaison Lily Forman spoke about the policy at the meeting, saying she’d heard from many families about the safety policy.

“I share their concerns about the effects of these drills on students,” Forman said at the meeting. “I appreciate that the first reading includes announcing that drills are just drills. I’m looking forward to continuing this important conversation later tonight to ensure that we are putting students first in every decision that is made.”

Forman also acknowledged the three fifth-graders who spoke at the BOE’s September meeting and asked the board members to do something about the frequent lockdown drills that make them nervous to go to the bathroom for fear they will get stuck there alone during a lockdown.

“I know it isn’t easy to speak at these meetings,” Forman said, addressing the student speakers. “I’m still getting used to it myself, but I’m glad to see you here to advocate for all students. It’s so important for us to make our voices heard, so thank you all for doing so.”

The state requires school districts to hold two active shooter drills, two non-fire evacuation drills, two bomb threat drills and two lockdown drills per year. In the BOE’s updated policy, the SOMSD will not hold more than required. Parents will be made aware of drills by 5 p.m. on the school days when they occur.

BOE member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad asked why families could not be informed before a drill is performed so students could be prepared, and Superintendent Ronald Taylor said many students might not go to school as a result if they knew in advance.

“They then are not gaining the experience with the drill that they need,” he said at the meeting.

Thomas Shea, the school district’s safety director, said at the meeting that it is too risky to let the public know when a drill will be held in advance, but students who have IEPs or special needs that make them sensitive to noise will be allowed to receive advance notice.

The updated policy also addresses staff training.

“The Board of Education is cognizant of the stress and anxiety that many students and staff experience as the result of preparing for the range of emergency situations encompassed by this policy,” the policy reads. “The Board directs that the training of staff, together with the planning and execution of drills, proactively address the need to reduce anxiety and help children feel safe.”

According to the policy, staff and students will be informed as it is happening that a drill is, in fact, just a drill. Care for students who may be caught in a hallway or outside a classroom will be prioritized, to make sure that no student is alone for the duration of a drill. Each school will have a safety and security plan in the event of an emergency that will be distributed to staff members. In addition, there will be more training for staff members about holding lockdown drills.

Tabletop drills, which teach students about what to do in an emergency without actually having a lockdown, are also mentioned in the policy. Shea said at the meeting that tabletop drills are allowed in addition to — but not in place of — regular drills, as mandated by the state.

Kanisha White, 26, a former student in the district, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting about her memory of lockdown drills.

“When I was 9 years old, I vividly remember having an active shooter drill at South Mountain Elementary School,” White said at the meeting. “All of us silently huddled into a corner in the room, the teacher running to lock the door and someone coming by to rattle the door handle, leaving us frightened by the thought that somehow, although it was a drill, the bad guy was still going to find a way in to get us.”

White was one community member who asked the BOE for notice of when the drills happen, saying, “I think it would be helpful to both students and parents of the district.”

Kathy Greenstone, a parent from South Orange, suggested an opt-in alert system that lets parents know when drills are held.

“Let’s undo some of the harm that we’ve done to kids because of these drills, and create a simple opt-in for parental notification,” Greenstone said. “A lot of us have kids affected badly by the drills, and can’t chase IEPs or 504 plans to be notified.”