Back to Lockdown Basics

Schools have been using lockdown protocols with success for the past 30 to 40 years. Acts of workplace violence, emergency room shootings, K-12 and higher education shooting rampages demonstrate the need for our campuses to have this lifesaving capability.

A public high school in the Asheville, N.C., region had just conducted a lockdown drill in the early 1970s when the need arose to implement an actual emergency lockdown. A mentally ill individual began shooting beverage cans he had placed on the trunk of a car and had to be shot and killed by local police in the front school parking lot. Though clearly a bad situation, lockdown procedures protected students and staff from the dangerous intruder.

Medical facilities, colleges, universities and technical colleges have also, unfortunately, been the scene of violence, making the capability to implement a lockdown crucial. Although a campus-wide lockdown may not always be practical or even possible, individual buildings and sites can be secured when the proper procedures and technologies are deployed.

To help avoid some of the common mistakes in developing viable lockdown protocols, there are some salient points for consideration:

  • Avoid the use of code words and phrases. Codes cause confusion that can result in the wrong protocol being implemented.
  • Develop two types of lockdowns, a preventive lockdown for the vast majority of situations (where the teaching and work processes continue) and an emergency lockdown with more aggressive measures where there is imminent danger.
  • Be sure lockdowns can be self-directed as well as directed. This is important for situations where staff detect danger before campus safety officials have an opportunity to give direction. Staff should, of course, be instructed to alert safety officials once they have implemented an independent lockdown.
  • Support staff and even student workers must be prepared to implement lifesaving functional protocols such as reverse evacuation, shelter in place or lockdowns. The time may be too long for the protective action to be implemented if a student worker at a university library desk must locate a staff member to find a department head or call safety officials, brief them and obtain directions.
  • Lockdown drills should be used only with careful thought. As fires and hazardous material incidents are more common than shootings, it is recommended that fire drills, reverse evacuation and shelter in place drills be conducted at least if not more often than lockdown drills. If you are in an earthquake or tornado zone, appropriate drills should be conducted for these hazards as well. As it is difficult to perform lockdown drills, careful thought should be given to the frequency and timing of any and all drills. Virtual tabletop scenarios and training DVDs offer effective ways to prepare staff and students without the disruption and physical danger of lockdown drills that can occur.
  • Key and plan component distribution is challenging but critical. Workspaces, customer service areas and learning environments should have lockdown capability. Not having locks on doors is like not having fire extinguishers in the building.
  • It is important to plan for lockdowns involving large numbers of visitors. For K-12 schools, this typically involves special events like basketball games, PTA meetings and the like, while universities typically have a wide array of functions each day with large numbers of visitors. Hospitals have an almost constant stream of visitors to be considered. Typically, lockdown situations for large numbers of visitors involve efforts to compartmentalize larger areas and provide some form of security or police protection for these groups.
  • Effective emergency communications involving internal and external public address and a variety of other methods can be used and are needed not just for lockdowns but for other hazards.

Keeping in mind that firearms attacks are extremely rare events for our nation’s campuses, we must be sure our safety efforts are in balance. At the same time, it is clear that the capability to provide secure spaces for staff, employees and visitors is a moral obligation and a part of doing business for our campuses.

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About the Author


Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a global non profit campus safety center. During his 30 year campus safety career, Michael has served as a university police officer, corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. He served as a school system police chief for ten years before being appointed the lead expert for the nation's largest state government K-20 school safety center. The author of 25 books on school safety, his work has taken him to Central America, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. Michael welcomes comments, questions or requests for clarification at Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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