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As students return, schools balance need for lockdown drills with pandemic protocols

Students react after a school shooting at Rigby Middle School in Rigby, Idaho on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (John Roark /The Idaho Post-Register via AP)
Students react after a school shooting at Rigby Middle School in Rigby, Idaho on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (John Roark /The Idaho Post-Register via AP)
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WASHINGTON (SBG) — As the pandemic's hold on our country begins to loosen, students are returning to school, bringing the threat of school shootings along with them. The spate of recent shootings is reinforcing the need to make sure our children are prepared for the worst. But we found training for active threats through lockdown drills has been a complicated process as schools balance safety with COVID protocols.

When it comes to training for a possible threat in schools, many students are taught a simple practice: locks, lights, out of sight. The procedure is one of many approaches to lockdown drills that help prepare students for scenarios like an active shooter situation. It's the method used by Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. She has spent years researching how we train children for the worst-case scenario and whether it works.

When we talk about the reason we’re doing lockdown drills, it’s to build that muscle memory, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, who's been researching this process for years. So if the worst day ever did come and your mind is trying to process everything going on around you, your body does what it is trained to do.

When Spotlight on America first spoke with Schildkraut last year, she was studying the effectiveness of lockdown drills by training and observing thousands of students and educators in Syracuse, New York. Watch the report below from our sister station WSTM in New York to learn more about what their research has shown.

Once the pandemic hit, the threat of school shootings was rapidly eclipsed by the COVID-19 health crisis. But now, with more kids back in the classroom, Schildkraut tells us threats we didn't have to think about for nearly a year, are now more prominent.

The more that people are back out in public and things are returning to normal, we're seeing more mass shootings, Schildkraut told us. So we can obviously expect that as schools are returning to normal, school shootings will also return as well.

We've seen that already, with at least two school shootings in Arkansas and Idaho in just the last few weeks.

In Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a 15-year-old boy was shot at a junior high school and airlifted to the hospital, with a suspected teenage gunman taken into custody.

In Jefferson County, Idaho, police say a sixth-grade girl brought a gun to her middle school, shot and wounded two students and a custodian, later being disarmed by a teacher.

Both serve as a reminder about the need for school systems to prepare. But how can that be done in the midst of a pandemic?

Spotlight on America dug into state stats. According to a 2019 study by the Education Commission of the States, more than 40 states require some sort of general safety or security drill in state statute or regulation. But only about 13 states have laws that specifically mandate lockdown drills. Those 13 are:

  1. Arkansas
  2. Delaware
  3. Kansas
  4. Kentucky
  5. Maine
  6. Maryland
  7. Michigan
  8. Minnesota
  9. Mississippi
  10. New York
  11. Oregon
  12. Rhode Island
  13. Virginia

Of those 13, we found that six states, Delaware, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, and Mississippi, appeared to make no update to their safety plans amid the pandemic.

The other seven did, acknowledging the need for COVID-19 planning, issuing new or modified guidance for drills. Guidance to use masks and social distancing during lockdown drills was common. Meanwhile, Minnesota gave districts the option to run drills with staff only, while in New York revised guidance advised students to stay in their seats during lockdown drills instead of moving to safe corners to hide.

Schildkraut's work studying lockdown drills continued during the pandemic. She says the most important thing is practicing to find balance, preparing for one potentially deadly threat while making sure kids aren't exposed to another.

If you come into a situation where there is an emergent threat in the building, where you need to engage in actual lockdown, not a drill, social distancing goes out the window, because there's only so much space in a room that you can be out of sight within, Schildkraut explained.

It's all part of the country's new normal, she told us, being agile enough to adapt to all potential threats, while keeping students both safe and healthy. "You don't ever think it's going to happen here, but my real takeaway was it's better to have the tools and not need them, than to need them and not have them about the importance of active shooter drills at schools," said Schildkraut.

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To see an interactive map of which schools require safety drills in general, click here.

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