It's been nearly five years since gunman Adam Lanza opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself. In the wake of the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting, school administrators across the country re-evaluated their emergency procedures and in-school drills began to change. In Henrico County, at least one parent of a Pocahontas Middle School student is unhappy with the district's approach to emergency drills.
"He told me he was crying the whole time of the drill," says Laura Hafer of her 12-year-old son, who has experienced lock-and-hide practice, known as code blue drills, at school. "When I asked what he was afraid of, he said he was worried that one of his friends had been killed, or that one of his teachers had been killed, or that he was going to get killed."
According to Henrico County Public Schools spokesman Andy Jenks, state requirements mandate that school administrators conduct emergency drills in schools.
"A code blue is a drill that prepares the school for the worst of the worst," Jenks says. "It could be an intruder of some kind, it could be an active shooter. A code blue is the ultimate test of a school's response."
Jenks says standard protocol is to announce the drills at the beginning of the year, monitor the results and, ultimately, conduct an unannounced drill.
"That, in our opinion, is the only way to ensure that the staff and students are truly emergency-ready," he says.
They start with classroom orientations, so teachers and students know what to expect, and he says the conversations differ from school to school, depending on what's age-appropriate. While high school students may be up to date on current events and understand the potential consequences of an intruder on campus, for younger children, the discussions focus on safe behaviors and trusting the adults at school to keep them safe.
And that, according to Hafer, is where her son's school is falling short. She says her son, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression, has been persistent in telling her that he found the code blue drills distressing. He never knows whether it's a drill or the real thing, she says, and in one particular instance, when the exercise lasted upwards of 30 minutes, he rated his anxiety level at an eight out of 10, and took an entire class period to calm down and refocus.
In a letter she intends to send to school officials and parents in the county, Hafer cites "Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills," a 2014 report compiled by the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers, which says that it is "critical that participation in drills be appropriate to individual development levels, and take into consideration prior traumatic experiences, special needs, and personalities." The report also advises schools to "develop a communications plan that gives all participants advance warning and the ability to opt out and/or provide feedback."
Hafer would like to see administrators balance overall school safety with students' individual needs. After feeling blindsided by her son's tearful recollections of the drills, she also wants the school to inform parents about the drills in one way or another.
Jenks says some principals notify parents during a drill, especially at the high schools, where students might text their families to let them know they're all right.
Hafer says she never received a phone call, a letter or any kind of notification that her son would be expected to participate in the drills. It also never came up in any discussions about her son's individual education plan, she says.
Transparency and communication or lack thereof between school administrators and parents is school security consultant Ken Trump's area of expertise. President of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, Trump is a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, and he's focusing on school safety leadership issues.
"I've been encouraging school administrators to be a little more thoughtful, to pull back the reins a little bit in some cases, and do a better job of thinking through how they're doing some of these drills," Trump says. "While we want schools to push the envelope a little and diversify their drills, the key is to do so to a point of reasonableness."
Lori Daley, a Henrico parent whose daughter with special needs attends a different middle school in the district, has had a strikingly different experience. She received a note following the school's most recent code blue drill stating that a teacher had taken her daughter outside for a walk before the drill to keep her anxiety at bay. Her daughter's needs during high-stress situations such as emergency drills came up during education-plan discussions early on, and Daley says she has been consistently happy with the way the school tends to her daughter's needs. And despite the fact that opting out of the drills means her daughter won't be prepared in the case of an actual emergency, Daley says she's not concerned.
"My daughter has constant supervision," she says. "I trust the school environment that she's in, and she's always had adequate, compassionate supervision from the staff that provide her academic guidance."
With the knowledge that students at other schools are being accommodated, Hafer wants to see more consistency across the district. As a social worker with a background in mental health, she's working with her son to develop coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques. But she also wants clearer communication, shorter drills, and accommodations for her son and other students with special needs.
"I really don't want to make this out to be a big deal," Hafer says. "But I can't have my child coming home with [post-traumatic stress disorder] or being that anxious or upset." S