School Lockdown Drills: How to Reduce Fear and Trauma

Published: May 30, 2024Episode #96
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Lockdown drills have become a standard part of school security across the United States. Although it is important to feel prepared to respond to a school emergency, these drills often elicit anxiety, fear, and sometimes trauma among students and staff.

Ian Lopez, director of safety and security for the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado as well as a 2024 K-12 Campus Safety Director of the Year finalist, has worked diligently to ensure lockdown procedures minimally impact student and staff mental health — so much so that other districts have turned to him for advice.

“There certainly are incidents that have happened across the country and even internationally that have created a lot of fear and anxiety over school shootings, but what we wanted to do is make sure that we’re prepared for those things and do the best we can to get our kids and our staff into safe spaces should something like that occur on our campus,” Lopez told Campus Safety. “But we also need to train it in a matter that’s not intimidating, that it’s empowering, that they feel they have some sort of control in the moment so that they’re not just reacting based on fear and anxiety but they’re responding based on a method of training.”

Lockdown Drills Always Announced, Vary

First, Lopez never conducts unannounced drills, noting schools “really just need to practice and practice purposefully” (4:55). Using the I Love U Guys Standard Response Protocol (SRP), the district facilitates two lockdown drills a year in each school. They have public safety partners participate, ensure all school administrators are on the same page, and communicate with teachers in advance. Teachers are given training videos and cheat sheets, and debriefs are always conducted.

The schools also practice all five SRP actions — hold, secure, lockdown, shelter, and evacuate. Objectives for each drill are also shared with teachers and students ahead of time, and with each drill, the district showcases a different piece of how an emergency might unfold.

“Sometimes we’ll use a hold to transition into a lockdown, or we’ll go to lockdown and then transition to a hold. We’ve done things during passing periods, we’ve done things during lunch periods. We talk about what to do if you’re outside when a lockdown occurs or if you’re not in a place where you can adequately lock down quickly,” he said. “We try to explain to them what their options are in that moment. We’re proactively building a response to an incident versus just relying on someone to just react to it.”

Using the I Love U Guys foundation guidelines, the district also sends home information to parents so they can talk to their children about the drills if they want to.

“We really look at it as an opportunity to teach. I mean, schools are all about teaching kids. During our lockdown drills, we try to take that time to teach the kids and the staff about protocols that we want to implement,” Lopez said. “Our hope is that they feel more reassured about the process knowing that they’re not just going to be sitting there with no other information.”

Technology Offers Constant Communication with First Responders During School Emergencies

To both offer peace of mind for staff and provide first responders with accurate information during a school emergency, Cherry Creek uses the RedBag, a cache of first aid supplies and individualized QR codes that when scanned, provide secure communication with the district’s dispatch center and security team (6:50).

“As we respond to an incident, we can provide teachers and kids in the classroom updates about what’s happening outside the room. They can communicate with us through two-way chats if they have imminent problems or if they have things that they’ve seen that need immediate attention. What we found is that by giving them this communication tool during a lockdown, it gives them a much better feeling of safety. They feel like they have support immediately available. They have communication both in and out of the rooms, and they’re not just sitting in the dark waiting for someone to knock on their door,” Lopez said. “From a psychological perspective, that does a tremendous amount to help our kids and staff feel comfortable and they can start that recovery process almost the minute that lockdown starts.”

Cherry Creek has conducted nearly 600 drills using the RedBag, allowing students and staff to familiarize themselves with the contents.

Additional Topics Covered

During the interview, Lopez also shared:

  • How the district ties in its alarm system during emergency drills (12:04)
  • How he spearheaded the creation of the district’s dispatch center while reducing operational costs (1:11)
  • How threats and anonymous tips are handled by the dispatch center (3:04)

The full interview transcript is below.

Watch the full interview here or listen on the go on Apple or Spotify.

 


TRANSCRIPT

Amy Rock (00:56): Hi everyone, and thank you for listening to this episode of the Campus Safety Voices podcast. I’m here today with Ian Lopez, who is the Director of Safety and Security for the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado, and also one of this year’s Campus Safety K-12 Director of the Year finalists. And Ian, reading through your nomination materials, there were many recent accomplishments, but one that stood out was the creation of your very own dispatch center, which is operated 24/7.

Now, it sounds costly, but your nomination says that it has reduced operational costs. Can you talk a little bit about how the dispatch center operates and also how you were able to reduce operational costs?

Ian Lopez (01:33): Sure. So first and foremost, thanks for having me. The dispatch center, when I got here in 2019, consisted of three different separate disparate dispatch centers. So we had a maintenance dispatch person, we had three security dispatchers, and we had five transportation dispatchers. My goal was to try to merge those three centers together so that we could have better operational capacity. Initially, it did take some time and some effort to get three separately functioning departments to kind of agree to this and move together. But I think what we found in short order was that the operational capacity of having those three departments being managed by dispatch under one roof was definitely an operational benefit.

And in terms of cost savings, we were able to merge some systems together, so we didn’t have three disparate functions out in the system. Now over time, we’ve started to add things to that, so we’ve added some more capabilities with radios and software. We just introduced a new CAD system here in 2024, and we’ll go live with that in June. So we have increased a few costs over time, but initially the benefit was to merge personnel together under one roof and save in terms of just having to have three separate facility staffed with that type of functionality.

Amy Rock (03:04): Now, the dispatch center, if there’s an anonymous threat that comes in through a reporting system, do they handle those 24/7?

Ian Lopez (03:14): So we supplement 911 centers, so if we get a police call into one of our partnering agencies, they will typically notify us. And then internally, we have the ability to push out communications, broadcast radio messages, connect with schools. We can even activate their alarms if need be from our dispatch operation center. So I guess the answer to that is it’s unique in how the information comes through. Sometimes we get information routing through our dispatch center that goes to police or public safety because it generates and starts inside of a school, and other times we get things that happen outside of the school that police notify us of, and then we push that information directly down to the schools.

Amy Rock (04:00): And I wanted to mention when you were combining the three groups, I feel like it can be hard to convince people to do something new and different when they’ve been doing something one way for so long. Even in my job, when you have to try out a new system, you’re like, “Oh, but I just learned the other one.” But obviously I’m sure your three teams saw the benefit in joining.

Ian Lopez (04:21): And it really boiled down to anytime there’s any sort of maintenance emergency or safety emergency inside of a building, those three departments usually have the largest response teams to those issues, because we’re usually responsible for safeguarding kids, safeguarding buildings, or moving or transporting kids. It made sense to us that in the event of emergency, we’re going to have to have these three entities working together, so we might as well do that on a regular basis so it’s not such a foreign concept to us when the big thing happens.

Amy Rock (04:54): Right, absolutely. And I also read that your district has strong lockdown procedures in place and other districts have actually implemented similar systems. What do you believe makes your procedures stand out from others?

Ian Lopez (05:07): Well, the first thing is we adopted the standard response protocol from the I Love U Guys foundation in 2019. A big change that had to happen before we adopted that was we wanted the foundation to change their language around lockdown and lockout. Those two terms are too similar, and oftentimes we would get them confused, so once the foundation decided to change “lock out” to “secure,” that made it easy for us to adopt because that’s what we had in process here in the district in 2019. So once that change happened, that allowed us to really focus in on the differences between those emergency actions, define them more specifically, and kind of train them in a fashion with our schools that made more sense to distinctly notice the difference.

But as it comes to lockdown drills, there’s a lot of fear and anxiety. There certainly are incidents that have happened across the country and even internationally that have created a lot of fear and anxiety over school shootings. But what we wanted to do is make sure that we’re prepared for those things and do the best we can to get our kids and our staff into safe spaces should something like that occur on our campus. But we also need to train it in a manner that’s not intimidating, that it’s empowering, like people feel empowered and that they feel they have some sort of control in the moment so that they’re not just reacting based on fear and anxiety, but they’re responding based on a method of training.

So some of the stuff that we did here in Cherry Creek was one, we don’t ever do unannounced lockdown drills. There’s just too much trauma that comes with doing that on a surprise, and there’s no need to do that. We really just need to practice and practice purposefully.

Another thing that we implemented here in Cherry Creek is the RedBag System. So what the RedBag System is, is it’s a cache of first aid supplies in our rooms, but it also has the ability to give each room a QR code attached to the bag that they can then scan when we go into lockdown. And that gives that room secure communication with our dispatch center and then our security team. So as we respond into the incident, we can provide teachers and kids in the classroom updates about what’s happening outside the room. They can communicate with us through two-way chats if they have imminent problems or if they have things that they’ve seen that need immediate attention. And what we found is by giving them this communication tool during a lockdown, that gives them a much better feeling of safety. They feel like they have support immediately available. They have communication both in and out of the rooms, and they’re not just literally sitting in the dark waiting for someone to knock on their door.

So from a psychological perspective, that does a tremendous amount to help our kids and staff feel comfortable and take a lot of the recovery process – they can start that recovery process almost the minute that lockdown starts.

Amy Rock (08:05): Now, I’m guessing you have the teachers during lockdown drills use that RedBag to make sure that they’re familiar with it, and obviously they’re not using it for the first time during an emergency.

Ian Lopez (08:15): Right. So we facilitate two lockdown drills a year in each of our schools, so now we’ve conducted close to 600 drills with using the RedBag System and all of our systems really, because every time we do a drill, we get our public safety partners to participate with us. We have all of the school administration on the same page. We communicate to teachers in advance and we talk to them exactly about what our objectives are for that drill. And each time we do a lockdown drill, we try to showcase a little different piece of how it might actually happen. So sometimes we’ll use a hold to transition into a lockdown, we’ll go to lockdown and then transition to a hold. We’ve done things during passing periods. We’ve done things during lunch periods. We talk about what to do if you’re outside when a lockdown occurs, or if you’re not in a place where you can adequately lock down quickly. So we try to explain to them what their options are in that moment. So again, we’re proactively building a response to an incident versus just relying on someone to just react to it.

Amy Rock (09:22): Now, I’m not sure if I am remembering what I read in the submission correctly, but I want to say it said every room has its own area for students and staff to go to during a lockdown. Is that an add-on in each classroom? Did that already exist or is it more so just a corner of the room where you can’t see from the door?

Ian Lopez (09:42): Yeah, what we try to do is during our drills, a lot of times schools will do drills or have done drills in the past where they just stand in the hallways and they listen for doors to lock. They may go around and check door handles, but it’s important for us that we make entry into the rooms during a lockdown drill to take some small amount of time to coach and mentor them, to reassure them that people are coming around to talk to them about what the best places inside their rooms are so that they’re most out of sight of those corridor windows and things like that. So we really look as that as an opportunity to teach. I mean, schools are all about teaching kids during our lockdown drills. We try to take that time to teach the kids and the staff about protocols that we want to implement. And so our hope is that they feel more reassured about the process knowing that they’re not just going to be sitting there with no other information.

Amy Rock (10:37): Now, you definitely went over some of this, but are there any other ways that you try to ensure you keep fear and trauma outside of these lockdowns?

Ian Lopez (10:46): We try to put all the information out there in advance. We work to try to develop training videos and training cheat sheets and things like that. We implement the SRP in all of our emergency operations plans at each school. Our team spends a great deal of our time just going around, participating in some of those safety team meetings. We talk through different scenarios through tabletops, and then anytime there’s any incident of any level, we really just try to debrief those so that we can have the best lessons learned from those incidents and not just let them go fall by the wayside.

Amy Rock (11:23): So do you send information home to parents as well so that they can talk to their kids about it if they want or they know what their kids are going to be doing?

Ian Lopez (11:32): I can’t take credit for that. I really have to give that credit to the I Love U Guys foundation for all the materials that they produce. We put a lot of that out there to parents and try to make sure that they are familiar with that.

Amy Rock (11:44): It’s amazing that so many of these resources exist because in some instances, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when there’s a great process or procedure that’s already out there and you can kind of just cater it to your district’s needs and sizes and things like that.

Ian Lopez (11:58): Exactly. And I think it’s really important to just keep it simple.

Amy Rock (12:02): For sure. And I think people also, I’m sure you don’t just do active shooter incidents as your lockdown, it’s other emergencies as well that are practice sometimes.

Ian Lopez (12:15): We have the schools practice all of the five different SRP actions, so that’s hold, secure, lockdown, shelter, and evacuation. So we practice all of those. Our alarm systems are tied in to mimic those so that all of our alarm systems are standardized throughout the district so that each school sounds exactly the same as the other. And we hope that that builds consistency from grade to grade and school to school, because as kids transfer, staff transfer buildings on a regular basis, we really want to just create that response muscle memory that if they hear those alarms, they know exactly what to do.

Amy Rock (12:50): Absolutely. Now, do you typically just say one of those five names, or do you kind of try and give a context to be like, okay, this example of a threat would be a secure threat, this would be a hold threat, this would be a lockdown threat, so that kids can kind of understand what’s going to come if they know the information of what’s happening?

Ian Lopez (13:09): We try to do that in the scenario base. And our alarm systems, we try to keep that very simple. I’ve seen other alarm systems where they can have up to a hundred different alarm broadcasts, which that may be applicable in some schools, but for a large footprint like ours with 80 facilities, we want to make sure that it’s just simple and consistent. I feel like we put too many options out there for alarms. In the incident, you may make a mistake and pick the wrong one, so we want to keep it simple.

But what we try to do with that is once we initiate the alarm, once the incident is stable or we get to a point where we’ve got enough information, then we can follow that up with some additional messaging, both through the RedBag application that I talked about, and then also through the PA system. But we use our RedBag to help bridge the gap between the initial alarm and any subsequent PA announcements made by school administrators. We really want them to understand that if we push information out through our RedBag communication, that that’s secured, that’s credible information, and we tell them that there’s going to be a subsequent PA announcement being made so it doesn’t surprise them.

Amy Rock (14:19): Now, I think I did read that those are cloud-based, so it doesn’t matter if you have Wi-Fi connection or if you have good cell service?

Ian Lopez (14:29): Correct. We try to work off the district’s Wi-Fi. The school Wi-Fi is usually very robust inside the buildings, so that’s typically the best source of data. But the system can also work on cellular if needed.

Amy Rock (14:42): I meant to ask you how big your district is.

Ian Lopez (14:44): Yeah. So we have, I’m sorry, about 55,000 kids. We have 80 facilities, 67 of them are schools. We have a bus fleet of about 300 buses and more than 9,000 employees, and we span about 108 square miles. So we’re both large in our footprint and size over the Arapahoe County area. And we have, again, some of our high schools are some of the biggest comprehensive high schools in the state. So large populations. One of our high schools is 4,000 students, so they do present different challenges, as every school does. But the good thing here that I would say the most important thing, we can implement all of the dispatch strategies and SRP strategies but the most important thing I think, for all of this is relationship building, right? Making sure the schools build good positive relationships with kids. And then my team, the district security team, and our dispatch team, support those schools and maintain good relationships with the administrators, both at the district level and at the building level to make sure that we’re trying to all work together in the interest of safety of our schools to the best we can. And that’s the thing I would say I’m most proud of is the team we’ve assembled and the relationships that we built and maintained over the last several years.

School Lockdown Drills Reduce Fear Trauma
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