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Lockdowns may be unnerving, but they're not unusual

Schools don’t hesitate to use them for security reasons. But some say their frequency can take a toll on students.

Published October 6, 2006

TAMPA — Ashten Fulk’s second-grade vocabulary now includes the phrase “modified lockdown.” As in, “Mommy, guess what! We were in modified lockdown today.”

Thankfully, when the sentence came out of 7-year-old Ashten’s mouth this week, Denise Fulk knew what her daughter was talking about.

School lockdowns are as much a part of today’s school culture as dry-erase boards and staggered lunches. In Hillsborough County, the nation’s ninth-largest school district with more than 200 schools, lockdowns are almost a daily occurrence, according to school security chief David Friedberg.

Other Tampa Bay area districts say they can’t be sure how often lockdowns occur. Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties do not keep exact figures. But most school officials agree that lockdowns — during which students can’t leave their classrooms and entry to campus is restricted — are one of the most common crisis tactics when a threat to campus safety lurks.

Principals call for lockdowns when a bank robber is on the loose nearby, when a noncustodial parent arrives at the office and demands to see his or her child, or any time an administrator deems that a lockdown might be needed to keep kids safe. In east Hillsborough last week, six schools were told to “shelter-in-place” — similar to a lockdown — after an unidentified smell of ammonia wafted over the area. The same day, the school district ordered a modified lockdown of every school in Hillsborough while authorities searched for the man suspected of killing a Polk County deputy.

“It’s a reactive, proactive, preventative measure,” said Friedberg, who simultaneously bemoans that such safety plans are necessary in today’s world.

No one questions the importance of keeping kids safe. But some wonder whether the frequency of the practice might take its toll on children’s sense of security.

On Wednesday night, Westchase Elementary first-grader Amber Sundland couldn’t sleep after her school was placed in lockdown and eventually evacuated. Deputies responded to a home burglary near the campus before noon. As dogs and deputies searched for the burglars, students spent the rest of their school day in lockdown, and some were bused to another school for pickup.

“She was scared they were going to break in and steal her backpack,” said Amber’s father, Atle  Sundland. “She didn’t want to lose her homework.”

The Sundlands calmed their daughter by allowing her to sleep with them that night. By the next day, Sundland said, Amber seemed to have forgotten about it.

School officials say they do their best to remain calm for children during lockdowns.

“Nobody gets ruffled. Nobody gets excited,” said Barbara Pittman, principal at Caminiti Exceptional Center, which was placed in lockdown last fall after a report of a boy with a gun nearby.

Lockdowns and so-called modified lockdowns are handled differently in different districts. Generally, a principal speaks over the intercom and the school radio and signals the magic word. In Hillsborough, that word is simply what Friedberg jokingly calls the “secret squirrel code” because there’s nothing secret about it:

“Lockdown,” the voice on the intercom says.

Children in exposed areas are shuffled into secure rooms away from windows and doors. Doors are locked, lights are turned off and shades are drawn. The principal quickly e-mails teachers to let them know more details about the extent of the threat.

Phyllis Coomer, a school psychologist who works at Westchase, said one key to helping kids stay calm is communicating early and honestly about the reason for the measure.

For example, Coomer said, a teacher this week might have said: “We’re in a lockdown because there’s a stranger on campus and we want to keep you safe.”

 Teachers practice the lockdowns just as they would fire drills. They rehearse the plan. And then, after every lockdown, they review what could have been done better.

Myra Eggert, a licensed mental health care specialist in Tampa who works with children, recalled working with a child in a school when a lockdown announcement came over the intercom. The child matter-of-factly said something like, “That means we can’t leave the room,” Eggert said. The child seemed otherwise unaffected.

After a series of tragic school shootings around the country in the past few weeks, few question that schools must take action to protect children from criminal threats.

Hillsborough sheriff’s Col. Gary Terry noted that lockdowns make logistical sense any time law enforcement is seeking a suspect. They clear the hallways and campus and give deputies a way to easily assess the safety of children, if necessary.

 Sometimes, the threat is internal.

Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg was locked down three times in January. In one instance, four students were arrested after other students saw them playing with guns in the school gymnasium.

Two weeks later, police officers were called to the school after a student found an airgun box in the boys locker room. The school was locked down a week after that when a 22-year-old man placed several guns inside a brown paper bag after fighting with his mother, who lived in the area.

 Eggert said such measures do seem to have a mounting effect on children’s sense of security. Lockdowns, news reports and the concerns of the adults around him can affect a child’s outlook.

“We do see an awful lot of anxiety from children, and it’s just general,” she said. “They’re just little sponges, and a sponge can only hold so much.”

Friedberg said he recognizes that news of a lockdown can raise concern, especially among parents. To mitigate confusion, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties both have a policy of notifying parents any time safety concerns require them to implement the measure.

At the same time, he regrets that lockdowns are necessary.

“Do I think it’s a terrible situation? Do I think it’s horrific that we have crisis plans in schools today?” Friedberg said.

“Yeah, I think it’s horrible. But I also think it’s a sign of the times. And I think we would be absolutely wrong not to do what we’re doing.”

When he watched coverage of the Bailey, Colo., school shooting last week, he said, he noted the calm that students and teachers exhibited as they evacuated the school, single file, in the face of a crisis.

It’s a case of how having a plan, knowing the plan and executing the plan perhaps kept a horrific situation from becoming even worse.

So lockdowns  might be a good thing.

“I’d much rather be answering your questions today of why I’m doing what I’m doing,” he said, “than answering your questions tomorrow about why I didn’t do more.”

Times staff writers Dong-Phuong Nguyen and Donna Winchester contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 6, 2006, 23:01:38]

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