Minnesota schools are required to hold five lockdown drills every school year to prepare for safety threats, but nobody’s checking to make sure they’re following through, and an informal survey found that many are far behind on meeting the standard.
The 2006 state statute requiring the drills doesn’t include any enforcement mechanism or penalties for schools that don’t hold the required drills, and that means the only ones tracking whether they’re being done are the schools themselves.
“It’s a requirement that nobody checks to see if anybody [is doing],” said Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight. “It’s like, we’re having a test Wednesday, but you never get a test, so who knows who studied and who didn’t?”
In the wake of this month’s near-tragedy in Waseca, in which police arrested a teen who they say was plotting a school shooting, many law enforcement officials say that frequent school lockdown drills are key to ensuring that students and teachers are prepared.
The lack of oversight bothers Knight, who believes “shortcuts are being made” in some districts — or “drills aren’t happening at all.”
In the state’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, 47 percent of the schools had completed three or fewer drills with less than a month of school left, and a survey of 19 districts across the state indicates that many others are also far behind on the drills. Most said they intend to catch up in the last weeks of school, but safety experts say drills aren’t as effective when they’re bunched together at the end of the year.
“[Schools] are doing fire drills,” said Nancy Lageson, director of the Minnesota School Safety Center. “I can’t say that they’re doing the lockdown drills.”
Inspectors from the State Fire Marshal Division visit every Minnesota school over a three-year period to check fire drill logs, ensure schools have a crisis plan which includes lockdown drills, and may ask to see lockdown drill logs, she said.
But Lageson also said she’s not sure whether schools are required to even keep their lockdown logs. And Jennifer Longaecker, spokeswoman for the State Fire Marshal Division, said inspectors have no authority to write citations for anything but fire drill compliance.
Lageson emphasized that “Everybody cares about [doing the drills]. They know they have to do it and they want to do it.”
In Anoka-Hennepin, efforts to get the drills done have been hampered by lost school days because of the severe winter, according to Chuck Holden, chief operating officer.
In Edina, four of the district’s nine buildings have completed three or fewer drills, according to Susan Brott, district spokeswoman.
Minneapolis public schools spokesman Richard Davis said that while drills are continually tracked, the district is “not itching to share” its numbers and declined to make them available in time for this story.
Adding to the tracking difficulty, most districts, from Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan to Mounds View and South Washington County, reported that setting the drill schedule is the responsibility of building principals, rather than one central office.
Large districts such as St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin have online systems to track the drills’ completion.
“There’s a lot of accountability built into our system [in Anoka-Hennepin] because if you leave it up to schools, like anything else, you’re going to get some people who are passionate about it and others that don’t really care,” Holden said.
Scott Colbeck, principal of three elementary buildings in Fergus Falls, said two of his schools have done three or fewer drills, and they’ll “get a crash course” in the last weeks of school. “I can say we’ve always done our five drills, but I can’t always say they’ve been timely,” he said.
Lageson said that anecdotally, “there’s a lot more compliance in the metro area than there is in greater Minnesota.”
Knight said he worries that when schools try to squeeze multiple drills into a few days or weeks, they become “some sort of gesture” rather than what lawmakers intended them to be.
Drills make a difference
According to the state Department of Public Safety, there are two types of lockdown procedures: a “lockdown with warning,” used for general emergencies, and the more serious “lockdown with intruder.” The second kind involves teachers bringing students to the nearest classroom, calling 911, locking doors and controlling movement. Rooms should be dark and quiet, and no one should be visible from windows or doors.
Knight said he’s seen schools’ familiarity with lockdown drills make a difference. Last year, the Eastern Carver County district had a “very legitimate threat” and the high school went into lockdown. Had schools not had a crisis plan and experience doing drills, “It would have been chaotic, no one would have known what to do,” he said.
“They are absolutely essential,” Lageson said of the drills. “There are some states where you have to have one a month.”
Jason Polinski, a sergeant with the Lakeville Police Department, helped conduct an elaborate “active shooter” drill for Lakeville district employees last August. The training involved several scenarios, along with smoke and real blanks being fired.
The reason it’s important to have five lockdown drills — or more, if possible — is that they need to become routine, so everyone knows exactly what is expected, Polinski said.
Two weeks ago, Knight sent out letters offering help conducting drills to every school in his area, from Eastern Carver County public schools to local parochial and Montessori schools.
“God forbid we ever have a Waseca, or worst-case scenario, a Columbine,” he said. “ I want to be able to say I reached out to my schools and they were in compliance, and if not, how can I help you?”