Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

South Orange-Maplewood Parents Voice Concerns about School Lockdown Drills

The topic of school lockdown drills — and their effects on students — was raised by parents at the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting Monday.

During the public speaks portion, a couple of parents asked the BOE to consider the effect of active-shooter exercises on young people. Jocelyn Ryan, who serves as the South Orange Middle School Home School Association liaison to the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC SOMA), shared a series of messages sent by a special-needs student to her mother during a lockdown.

According to Ryan, the unidentified student wrote, “I’m really scared we’re all going to die. The principal just said to send a student, and he’s not supposed to do that. Only the police can do that. We’re all going to die.”

Ryan continued, “She knew that the assistant principal would never ask for a child to be sent to the office before the police had released the classes from a drill, so she assumed that someone was holding a gun to his head to make him say that. For two weeks after the drill, this teenager slept in her parents’ bed.”

Ryan cited recommendations by the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers. The groups collaborated to produce a guide to best practices around active-shooter drills, which identifies “the important factors schools must take into account when considering and choosing to conduct armed assailant drills.”

The document, which was last updated in April 2017, recommends: “School-employed mental health professionals should be involved in every stage of preparation.” It also recommends, “Participation should never be mandatory, and parental consent should be required for all students” and says it’s critical that participation in drills “be appropriate to individual development levels, and take into consideration prior traumatic experiences, special needs, and personalities.”

Sarah Wakefield, another SOMS parent and an associate professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, said that her seventh-grader had experienced a “difficult reaction” to a lockdown drill in November — and has grappled with them since third grade.

“I have responded to that by teaching her about the [small] likelihood of [a shooting] happening in her school,” she said. “I’m an expert on that.” Wakefield said there’s “not a lot of information” about whether children feel safe in their schools.

Last June, SOMSD Safety Director Thomas Shea held a presentation on an options-based school security protocol known as ALICE — which stands for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.” Several BOE members and some community members expressed reservations about adopting ALICE in the school district, while others supported implementation of a school safety response plan that would help students feel safe.

Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra addressed comments about the lockdown drills near the end of the meeting.

“I just wanted to remind the board and public that safety drills are required by state law. They take it very seriously,” he said, adding that boards of education have successfully challenged the tenure of principals who failed to comply. “There have been principals who’ve lost their jobs and their license to ever be a principal again for failure to carry out the drills. So, I know that there’s some frustration and fear about the drills, but the principals really do not have a choice” about whether or not to conduct the drills.

“So, that should really be at the legislative effort,” Board President Annemarie Maini added.

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