Writing Nowadays–School Security

Continuing our series on what writers of YA fiction need to know about schools . . .

Sorry about the missed blog last time.  My sons and I took off for spring break (another school-related thing) and there was no Internet, if you can believe such thing.

We all remember the Columbine shooting.  And the one at Virginia Tech.  And the one at . . . well, school shootings have become depressingly commonplace.  These days, schools are required by federal law to have in place a number of security measures that do affect writers of YA fiction.  Let’s examine a few.

Remember all those fire drills and tornado drills you enjoyed as a student?  We still have them.  Every year, each school building must have four fire drills and two tornado drills.  I don’t know if places that don’t get tornados are immune to the latter.  Students still love them (“Yay! We get out of class for ten minutes!”), and teachers still hate them. (“I’m losing ten minutes of instruction, it throws the rest of my classes out of whack, and it takes several more minutes to get these freshmen back under control.”)

But in addition, we now have lockdowns.  We practice each kind with one drill per year. The lockdowns come in different flavors, based on the kind of potential danger.

A Level 1 threat pops up when someone or something a mile or more away from the building creates a potential threat to the school or its students.  This might be a bank robbery in which the robber fled the police (the robber might take it into his head to hide in the school), an unidentified person brandishing a gun on public property, or even a wild animal prowling about.  The procedure is to announce to the teachers that the school is under a Level 1 lockdown, lock all outside doors, and to keep all students in the building.  No one is allowed to enter or leave the school during a Level 1 lockdown, but otherwise business carries on as normal.

We get a Level 2 threat when a threat or potential threat appears within one mile of the school or is even on the school grounds.  The school doors are locked as above.  Teachers are to lock their classroom doors as well (in case the threat manages to find its way into the building) and shutter or shade all windows (so that no one outside can see a target inside).  Students and teachers stay in the classrooms until the lockdown is lifted, and no, we can’t make exceptions for a potty emergency.

Level 3 is the worst–a threat that appears inside the actual school.  These are also the most annoying to run a drill for.  During a Level 3 lockdown, all doors and windows are locked and shuttered.  Students, teachers, and staff are expected to disappear like ninjas.  Seriously–during the drills we turn out all the lights and 35 students try to vanish within the confines of a classroom.  It’s about as effective as it sounds.  During a real threat (heaven forfend), students are discouraged from climbing out windows to flee, since we have no way of knowing if the threatening person is pointing a gun at them from another window.

There are small variations to the above–how parents might be notified, whether or not students may be sent home, etc.  All schools must keep their safety plan on file with the local and state police and the FBI.  Part of the safety plan includes a map or diagram of the school so the authorities can coordinate movement around the building.  At my school, all the outside doors are numbered in clockwise sequence around the building so the cops can say things like, “We’re going in through Door 12.”

Some schools have professional security guards or even police officers on-site.  There’s no pattern to who does and who doesn’t, really.  My school had a full-time police liaison for years until budget cuts ended the program.  He wasn’t there to patrol the halls.  He spent most of his time dealing with theft, drug problems, and speaking in classrooms.  Police on school grounds have full police authority.  Security guards are school personnel or school employees, and they have only as much authority as the school itself does.

Ever since Columbine, students have been trying to get school cancelled for the day by scrawling vague threats on a bathroom wall.  They rarely say things like, “The bomb goes off at 1:00.”  Instead, they opt for, “It happens today” or “Tick tick tick.”  This is done on the (incorrect) notion that the perpetrator, once caught, can claim the words weren’t a threat at all because they don’t mention a bomb or explosion directly.

Schools know that the chances of there being a real bomb anywhere on school property are vanishingly slim.  Sometimes they’ll hold an evacuation drill and make everyone stand outside for an hour, whatever the weather, and not allow anyone to go home.  This pisses off all the students and usually gets someone to angrily squeal on the fool who did it.  Usually, however, the school will call the police, who send over a bomb-sniffing dog to give the place a once-over.  A reward is often offered for anyone with information leading to the capture and conviction of the scrawler (the threats are a felony), and life goes on.

Once in a while, the school receives a threat that makes them hold a search.  All students are stopped at the doors on their way in so teachers can search their backpacks and purses.  Again, it pisses off the student body and usually leads to someone dropping a dime on the perpetrator.

School personnel, by the way, are legally allowed to search student backpacks, lockers, purses, clothing, and cars for any reason.  (The same does not apply to adult personnel or visitors.)  This even applies to cell phones.  Students are often quite shocked to discover that no one needs a warrant to look through their things when they’re at school, but that’s the law.  The law says, if you don’t want your things searched, leave them at home.

Federal law requires that schools keep their side doors barred to entry at all times.  Only certain doors may be used to enter the school.  (All doors may be used to exit, however.)  In theory, this is to ensure that anyone entering the building will be forced to pass some kind of desk where a secretary or guard will ask the person his or her business.  It’s also supposed to ensure that the kids who enter are actual students.

In practice, it never works that way.  School doors almost always open into a hallway or a large space such as a cafeteria, and it’s difficult or impossible to station a receptionist or guard there.  Schools simply can’t afford to pay someone to stand around and ask people why they’re entering the building.  Instead, there’s always a sign that says something like “Visitors must sign in at the main office.”  And people ignore it.  I encounter strange adults in the hallway all the time.  I’m outgoing enough to ask them what their business is and if they’ve checked in at the office–they’re supposed to get a visitor’s badge–but lots of teachers don’t feel comfortable with this.  And, of course, any person who looks like a student can stroll through the doors without being challenged.  My school has over 1,600 students, and no one can recognize everyone by sight.  So this aspect of school security is rather lacking.

I’ve already mentioned that dropping prices have allowed many schools to install security cameras in the halls.  This not only helps administrators figure out who started a fight, it also protects teachers.  Just recently a colleague of mine was escorting a student to the office.  The student abruptly grabbed my colleague and started a tussle.  My colleague barked, “This is on video!”  The student instantly let go.

–Steven Harper Piziks


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Writing Nowadays–School Security — 10 Comments

  1. I can remember three bomb threats at my rural high school in the late 60s; it’s not a new phenomenon, sadly (and they were made for the same reasons most of them are: “Cool, I can skip Chem if we’re in lockdown!”

    And I’ll add to the pot that, in urban schools in areas known for gang activity, the dress code may be skewed to make sure no gang colors are worn–in SF it’s mostly red and blue. And the bathrooms at some schools are kept locked because of possible gang malfeasance–kids need a security escort to pee.

  2. And there is the whole cell-phone/text issue. Naturally, if the kids have cells, the little slackers are texting each other and not paying attention, right?
    But if something Really Bad happens, a cell is important. A kid can text out (“We’re hiding in the boy’s room and we can hear shots!”) or parents can text or phone in (“They’re evacuating the Pentagon, I’ll be at your school in 1/2 hr!”). The schools tried to ban cell phones around here — I live in the greater DC area — but after 9-11 there was mass rebellion and they gave in. Sometimes you hear of rules about keeping the phones in packs or lockers, but I am not sure these have any effect.
    And at the college level, after VA Tech, the schools themselves set up text alert systems. When my son arrived at college for Freshman Orientation, his dorm counselor sat all the boys down (a Jesuit school, so no co-ed dorms) and had them take out their cell phones. He recited the emergency cell and text contact numbers and the boys entered them in. We parents stood at the back, watching our darlings with eagle eyes while they did this. Only then could we leave them to start college life. FWIW my son reports that in 4 years of college he only got one alert. It was about an earthquake — this was in northern CA — and nobody was excited.

  3. We had bomb drills, but they were nuclear bomb drills. Getting under our desks was supposed to protect us from the blast.

    No tornado drills here, but I believe the local schools do have earthquake drills.

  4. I still remember the fire alarm where it was thirty-five out and raining. They kept urging students away from the eaves, where they would try to take shelter, because there actually was a minor fire, but if it had gone on much longer, hypothermia probably would have come into play. . . .

    If your school has no notion of what it would do with the kids once outside, even when the need for shelter is desperate, I suspect it’s perfectly normal.

  5. That’s a problem, actually–what would you do if there was a real building evacuation during cold or dangerous weather? Most schools would probably bring school buses over ASAP or something, but really, school fires are so very, very, VERY rare that it almost never comes up.

  6. Unless the school is standing by itself, Laura Ingalls Wilder-style alone in miles of empty prairie or tundra, surely kids could scurry over to the shelter of neighboring houses. Even if nobody is home, there are porches and carports and doorways. Chaotic and undesirable, of course — it would take ages to search out all the kids again and reunite them with parents — but it could be done.
    Around here there is a program for emergency kid sheltering. You sign up and they run a check (to be sure you aren’t a child molester), and then you get a sign to hang in a front window. In case of ANY bad situation — fire, terrorism, a strange car following on the walk home — kids were trained to go up to a house with a sign, and knock. The adult in residence is supposed to let the kid in. Everybody had one of those signs at one time (in 2002); I think it’s less common now.

  7. I dunno. When we had fire drills in southwestern Massachusetts no quarter was given to the weather. You were not allowed to grab your coats from your lockers–out the door, and stand there in she rain, snow, sleet, or sub-freezing sunshine, until the all-clear sounded. And until I was a junior in HS (this is back in the days when we walked 30 miles to school uphill both ways) girls were not allowed to wear pants. Your knees could turn really blue during a bomb scare or fire drill.

  8. And if you have a large school, it would take a large number of houses to shelter them all.

    I’ve heard of one where they managed to walk the kids down to a nearby church for shelter when they were already pretty cold. Then they sent them home, except that many of them had parents who weren’t home — that must have been fun. I still remember the time when my mother heard about school closing early and figured my older sister had a key. What she hadn’t heard was that it had closed early only for the elementary, owing to time of buses and the like, and my younger sister and I were very glad we had a closed in porch, though it was kinda nippy on it, too.

  9. Oh sure — stuff like that happens all the time. My daughter, the Terror of the Occoquan, once was locked out of the house. I can still look out the kitchen window and see the damage where she tried to lever her way back in. Thank heaven they don’t let junior high school kids have explosives! I live in a concealed carry state but the legislature has not yet become so demented as to let kids carry.