The School Safety Debacle
Yet another Florida high school went into lockdown on the morning of Thursday, December 6th with the terrorizing threat of an active-shooter on campus. The difference this time: the shooter was completely made up. Lake Brantley High School (LBHS), situated in Seminole County, has adopted a policy to prepare for school crises whereby students must face unannounced active-shooter drills. For the duration of the drill, the students are made to think that what they are experiencing is real, and that their lives are in imminent danger if they do not react quickly and properly. The hope is that this will prepare students in case a real shooting takes place on campus. Both in theory and execution, though, LBHS made crucial mistakes that not only made the school less safe in the short-term, but also make it less resistant to active-shooter threats in the long-term.
To be sure, LBHS is far from the first school to conduct active-shooter drills. Various other schools from many other districts across the country have followed what they assume to be sound logic - that regularly hosting drills will help elicit the proper responses by students if a real shooting event takes place. In the words of Captain Rick Francis of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, who was behind the drill, “[W]e have to test the system. I have to do these unannounced drills if I am to protect the kids”. Ideally, by repeatedly testing the students’ crisis preparedness, the district and local law enforcement can point out any weaknesses and trouble spots, in order to perfect the students’ response.
The assumption that active-shooter drills can be successively conducted without damaging their integrity is, however, quite suspect. After all, nothing ever happens in a vacuum of experience; all individuals necessarily possess knowledge of the past as a prerequisite for present and future action. If a school tries again and again to simulate an emergency situation, the students are bound to become desensitized to it, at least partially, causing the urgency and gravity of the situation to dissipate. As Avery Brennan, a junior at Lake Brantley, put it, “it’s like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf,’ so now we won’t know what to think”. The next time a lockdown is declared, the assumption will be that it is just another drill, or at least that it could be.
Even if, in future drills, the students try to act as they would under a real scenario, their lack of actual fear will prevent their involuntary physiological responses from being triggered. Clearly, then, the students’ true responses cannot be accurately gauged more than once. Still, Capt. Francis confidently proclaimed, “We will do more unannounced. It's only going to increase”. By his own admission, doing so is required by law .
On top of that, while schools can disseminate general information on how to stay safe during an active-shooter situation, they cannot anticipate all the variable intricacies of potential shooters’ plans. The students attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last February, for instance, were not prepared for gunman Nikolas Cruz to ambush them after pulling the fire alarm. Ruthless murderers will find a host of other situational loopholes to exploit, especially when they are students, teachers, or graduates of the schools they are shooting up. There are too many intricacies to draft detailed response plans for. It stands to reason, then, that no drill can really prepare students for an actual school shooting. The variable, high-pace events, as they occur in the moment, cannot be planned for. Thinking that they can might make things even worse.
Clearly, LBHS and all other schools conducting unannounced shooter drills are making fundamental errors - even in theory. In practice, though, the drills are even more flawed and their effects even more dangerous. What caused the recent media stir over LBHS was not the mere fact that it held a drill, but rather the acute mistakes made in executing it.
At 10:21 that morning , an administrator announced over the intercom that the school was in “code red,” initiating lockdown procedures. With fear in his voice, he was sure not to mince words, confirming to the school, “This is not a drill”. Megan Storm, a Lake Brantley attendee, weighed in , “I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen, but based on all the stuff you hear … you think there’s [a shooter] who is going to get you”. Everyone, it seems, was on edge, even before they were informed of a shooter’s supposed presence. In accordance with protocol, students and faculty immediately locked their classroom doors and barricaded them with desks and tables, so to prevent a possible attacker from entering their rooms. They turned off lights and hid wherever they could - in closets and under desks, with some even defensively arming themselves with sports gear.
Meanwhile, teachers were sent a message from administrators over both text and email that an active-shooter had been reported on campus. Students got ahold of this information (either by reading teachers’ computer screens or by being told outrightly by teachers), confirming their worries and elevating the panic. As far as they knew, there was an armed gunman in the school and some people might die. Students texted their parents and other loved ones what they believed could have been their final words, and younger siblings at the district’s middle school began to cry over their big brothers and sisters’ apparent plight.
Around 10:45, after dozens had endured full-on panic attacks, an administrator announced over the intercom that the lockdown was over. As the school returned to business as usual, there was still much confusion over what had happened.
Not much later, while some students were eating lunch, another announcement came over the intercom, clarifying that the “code red” had only been a drill and congratulating the students and faculty on whole well they conducted themselves. Given the low-quality audio of the intercom, though, many within the noisy lunchroom only heard the words “code red”. Thinking that the active-shooter threat had reemerged, the lunchroom erupted into total chaos. As Joseph Cirillo, a junior at LBHS, recalls, “I saw hundreds of people start running and screaming, and people getting stampeded trying to get out”. Students rushed outside en masse, jumped fences, and fled to nearby streets, with some sustaining minor injuries in all the panic.
To make matters worse, Michael Lawrence, a Seminole County Public Schools spokesperson, claimed that, moving forward, the school district is working on creating alternative language to replace “code red”. Some other word or phrase will be used to initiate lockdowns in the future. The very reason for the lunchroom chaos, though, was that many could only hear “code red” - only this stuck out to them in an otherwise unintelligible string of words. That means that if less familiar language is used, students may tune it out completely, even in the case of a real emergency. Administrative careless could easily make students much more vulnerable, and this, it is clear, also impacts their families.
It was only after the lunchroom incident, at 11:19, that parents were notified that the lockdown had only been a drill. Many, after fearing for their children’s lives for the past hour, took to social media to direct their anger toward the school district, which was heavily apologetic for its delayed communication. While many were in correspondence with their children, and thus were able to get some updates on what was happening, a clear and definitive announcement by school authorities was lacking for far too long, extending the fear and confusion further.
Overall, Lawrence called Thursday morning “a perfect storm of events”. This, after all, is true - but it does not absolve those involved of their mistakes. Deceit and miscommunication fueled an event that traumatized the whole district. One parent posted online, “Nothing is more terrifying than getting a text from your daughter who is hiding in her classroom having a complete anxiety attack because they are under a code red with an active shooter on campus”. That emotion and memory may never be erased - from the parent or the child. Brennan said in a similar light, as a student, “I can still hear the voice of my teacher saying, ‘Oh my God, there’s a shooter in Building 1’. That’s burned in my brain now, even though it’s not real. I am going to remember that forever”. Another student, Sabrina Bonadio, bluntly commented, “[T]he way that this was conducted - and just by emotional impact alone - was horrendous”. Indeed it was - but that is what can be expected when the government takes control of children’s safety.
The government always imposes “solutions” with a one-size-fits-all mindset, as it lacks the natural flexibility of market agents. The profit-loss feedback mechanism of the market is simply nonexistent there. Whatever is determined to be the “best” plan of action by school administrators and state lawmakers is codified as official policy, even while other proposed plans may be much more effective at protecting students. Moreover, unlike private firms, the government has little interest in ensuring consumer satisfaction in its operation, and is, thus, much more likely to cause trauma and outrage as it did earlier this month. Unreported instances much less severe than that at LBHS will continue to endanger students, not only with regard to potential shooters, but also concerning their emotional health. Truly, every case of government intervention imposes real costs that will be felt; all that can be hoped is that they will not be felt with devastation and calamity.