School Shooting Florida

Students released from a lockdown embrace following following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP) ORG XMIT: FLLAU225

John McCall

The drills have become standard in school districts, especially in the wake of deadly mass shootings. 

Students act out what they would do if an armed intruder appeared on campus: lock the doors, cover the windows and stay where they are quietly until the crisis passes.

In the two weeks since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, students and teachers throughout the Baton Rouge area have been going through these exercises designed to help prepare them for how they would respond to a threat like a shooter on campus. While districts require schools to hold a certain number of crisis drills throughout the year, some principals timed their lockdown drills in response to that shooting, school system officials said.

Local teachers said the drills can be helpful, an occasion to bring up potential dangers with their students, though they hope the preparation turns out to be unnecessary. In fact, they'd like more specialized training specifically instructing them on how best to respond and ensure safety in possible active shooter situations.

"My students and I have discussions about safety," said Cyndy Rutherford, a third-grade teacher at Westminster Elementary School. "We talk about what we would do in the event of a school shooting. We play out different scenarios, but who can ever truly prepare for such an event?"

A challenge some teachers brought up was getting students to take the drills seriously, especially elementary students who tend to see turning off the lights in the classroom and having to scramble under their desks to hide as a fun break from classroom instruction. 

"A lot of times, I have to make sure they understand the severity of the issue," said Erika Adams, a fifth-grade teacher at Cedarcrest-Southmoor Elementary School. "It's just insane that this is our reality now. When I was in school, we just had hurricane and fire drills." 

Christopher Jones, who teaches geometry at McKinley Senior High School, said the current procedures and safety protocols on his campus are fine but could be improved. 

"I think we're in the process of still working on them," Jones said.

Jones said he's in favor of better notification to teachers when a serious threat is on campus and incorporating more armed security guards instead of the current model to place one school resource officer on each campus.

"As teachers, we didn't sign up to place our lives on the line to educate kids. We need protocols to protect ourselves," he said.   

The most recent school shooting also has sparked a national debate around arming teachers with concealed handguns, an idea President Donald Trump has repeatedly raised as a potential strategy. He has advocated arming teachers who already have military experience or specialized training.

The proposal has received a considerable amount of backlash nationwide. Jones and other teachers said they, too, have no desire to bring a weapon to school.

"It's just absurd," Adams said. "Some teachers and I were talking about this. Now you want me to carry a gun, but you're paying me $40,000 a year? We already have enough expectations placed on educators and now this is what we're going to do?"

In the days immediately following the Feb. 14 shooting, local authorities were on high alert after an alarming stream of copy cat threats were posted on social media targeting various campuses throughout the region. 

For example, Ascension Parish authorities have investigated several online threats involving Dutchtown High School. On Tuesday, a juvenile was arrested after making a threat on the Dutchtown campus and released to his parents, a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman said. 

Carli Francois, the school's principal, sent a note to parents saying that they did not feel the safety of students was ever "compromised" but noted that all threats are treated seriously. In a message to parents Monday, school Superintendent David Alexander encouraged them to speak with their children about being cautious about how they express anger involving others at school. 

"We are taking very seriously each and every reported situation that could be considered a potential threat," Alexander said.

Jackie Tisdell, the spokeswoman for the Ascension Parish School District, said this week that there hadn't been an increase in the number of crisis drills in the district following the Florida shooting or the perceived threat at one of their schools. 

Tisdell said the district already has a "rigorous" drill schedule of at least one lockdown or fire drill each month. The district also partners with local law enforcement to conduct random "step-up drills" where school administrators and students are taken through real-life crisis scenarios. 

But West Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Wesley Watts said the Florida shooting inspired several principals in his district decided to lockdown drills on their campuses in addition to the ones that were already scheduled. 

"Some of them chose to do that because of the timing," he said.  

In East Baton Rouge Parish, Taylor Gast, a school system spokeswoman, said at least 20 schools have held such drills over the past two weeks. At least eight of those drills occurred at high schools, or about one per day, a rate modestly higher than in the first weeks of the current semester, Gast said.

Starting next year, Gast said East Baton Rouge Parish schools will be obliged to log every single drill they conduct. 

The lockdown drills cover a wide range of possible emergencies, not just shooting situations, and schools are obliged to conduct at least two a year, though they can do more, she said. They are not as common as fire drills, which occur once a month.

Last fall, representatives from every one of the 80-plus schools in the system received training in Emergency Response Information Portal, where they have access to updated floor plans and school emergency plans. The portal also has training videos on a variety of topics and is used by school officials to probe for security vulnerabilities. Gast said that training will occur twice a year starting next school year.

The topic of school safety also will be addressed at this week's West Baton Rouge Parish School Board meeting. 

"We want to be vigilant and review what we have in place and make sure we're doing everything possible, in terms of drills, to make our students and teachers are safe," Watts said.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.