Professor receives $50K grant to explore code red drills in SOMSD

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MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — A few months after elementary school students in the South Orange–Maplewood School District asked the Board of Education to decrease the number of code red drills held in the schools, Maplewood resident Khadijah Costley White won a $50,000 grant to make three short films that will explore the effects of school security measures for the students, staff and parents of the district. Part of the Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship, White is the representative from Rutgers University, where she is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies.

“We wanted to keep the district from using ALICE,” White said in a phone interview with the News-Record on March 11, referring to the controversial lockdown drill program. “That was not how we wanted to approach school security. There’s been more and more research about how they’re causing anxiety and growing consensus in the medical community about their impact on students.”

Students in Maplewood and South Orange told BOE members they were having panic attacks as a result of the drills, were scared to be stuck in the hallways when a drill began and stopped drinking water for fear of being alone in the bathroom during a drill. White wants the videos she produces to bring more voices to the conversation.

“It’s a medium that can be helpful because it can create a narrative,” she said. “We don’t have that now. There’s no room to talk to the board about policy. The superintendent will often respond at meetings, but not the board. So let’s take an issue that seems like it’s important and create a space to have a dialogue.”

The grant will allow White to conduct interviews with experts and community members, in addition to working with film editors. She won’t have to juggle the project with her normal class schedule, because she’ll be taking the 2020-2021 school year off to work on the videos. White is expecting the three videos to have a runtime of 20 to 30 minutes total.

“I want to talk to as many people as I can and then switch over to the community,” she said. “I want to have discussions about it and pull together their thoughts, and hopefully influence the people at the top who are making these decisions. The goal is to collaborate with community partners. We have to have those conversations.”

White has a 3-year-old son with special needs in the SOMSD preschool program. She said the special needs families in the district are especially being affected by the code red drills. It’s one aspect she wants to focus on in the videos, in addition to the racial inequalities that some policies affect. There is often a racial divide that prevents students of color from having the same access to help for anxiety as a result of the code red drills.

“Education is really important,” White said. “Race is really a part of that here, and that requires we be thoughtful about any policy we implement. We can use media to talk through these issues.”