After school shootings in Columbine, Sandy Hook and most recently at Sherman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Forest Park District 91 officials have partnered with police to develop a security plan for schools, which has included tightening up the buildings and practicing safety drills with students and staff.
Before a practice drill, D91 notifies parents that “at some time in the near future” there will be a lock down, active shooting or other drill. Schools have social workers to help students and parents deal with the upset emotions that can sometimes accompany such trainings.
“After the Parkland shooting, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of disappointment,” said Aaliyah Bailey, a student at Forest Park Middle School. “Later that day I was also angry that this is still happening to people in our world today.”
D91 students and staff practice two types of lockdown drills: soft lockdowns and hard lockdowns. Soft lockdowns rehearse what to do if there is something unsafe occurring in the building that is not necessarily an outside threat. Students and teachers practice staying in the classroom, locking doors and not going in the hallways.
In a hard lockdown or active shooter drill, kids are taught to move away from windows, move out of sight and stay quiet. Teachers draw the blinds. If told they have to leave the building, students rehearse leaving with their hands on their heads.
Mary J. Stauder, principal of Garfield Elementary School, said that along with fire drills, which students and staff practice three times a year, and disaster and tornado drills, which are rehearsed twice a year, students, teachers and Forest Park police conduct lockdown drills once per quarter.
Supt. Louis Cavallo said the goal of the drills is to get students to the point where they successfully complete the drills without thinking, although only he and Forest Park police know the exact details of how the school will react to an active shooter situation because “people jump to conclusions [after an event like the Parkland shooting] and make all kinds of statements without being privy to all of the facts.”
He acknowledged that the drills can be frightening for some kids.
But “they need to be a bit afraid, so they take they take it seriously if it really happens,” he said.
When it comes to the possibility of arming teachers, which President Donald Trump endorsed in a policy speech in early March, Cavallo said he hires teachers based solely on their ability to teach.
“I know my staff here and I can’t imagine them using a weapon. Most people who have a firearm at home keep it in a lock box,” he said. “If we do that in our classrooms, teachers would not be able to get to it in time if there were an active shooter in the building. If we don’t keep the weapon locked away, there will be opportunities for a kid to get it, and that would be disastrous.”
During the last six years, security enhancements have also been made on all of the D91 buildings. At Garfield Elementary School, for example, the outside door is looked, and if the school secretary doesn’t recognize entrants on her security video screen, she’ll ask you to identify yourself and state your purpose for entering the school.
After getting past the first locked door at Garfield, the only part of the school accessible to visitors is the office, Cavallo said. There is then still a second locked door that visitors have to be given access to, and even then a staff member accompanies them at all times.
Steve Rummer, who has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in second grade at Garfield, said that because he served in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked as an embassy security guard he has some experience protecting buildings.
“Given a sufficiently determined individual I don’t know how safe [the school] would be,” he said. “I think they’ve done as good a job as anybody could. I’m absolutely comfortable with what they done here and confident in their ability to keep my kids safe.”
Cavallo said that he and police tried to strike a balance between safety and maintaining a nurturing environment as they were creating the security plan.
“We can lock down the buildings,” he said. “We can put up barbed wire fences with razor wire above that and make the schools look like a jail, but we want our kids to feel like they are in a nurturing place. Striking that balance is not easy.”