Fifty-six days after 17 people were murdered by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and 37 days before 10 people were murdered by a gunman at Santa Fe High School in Texas, I participated in a drill at Newtown Middle School that presupposed something traumatic had happened and students needed to be reunited with their parents.
I was relatively new to Newtown, having moved here with my family from Ohio in August 2016. We chose Newtown for a number of reasons — its rural nature and the kindness we experienced from everyone we encountered. But we also chose it because the schools were good, and we figured they were probably safer than any other school district in the country because of the 26 people who were murdered by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.
The middle school’s drill took place the morning of April 11. It started with a school-wide evacuation that was similar to a fire drill. Then the students – all 8th graders – whose parents had signed them up were taken to a staging area and put on buses. Parents, meanwhile, were told to wait for emails and phone calls from the district.
The school had been trying to recruit parents and their students to volunteer for this drill for about a month. They had initially sought between 50 and 100 families, but ultimately, only 38 signed up, including one student who was in Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012. One of the primary concerns was the schooltime students would miss if they participated.
I asked my son what he thought about taking part. He groaned, mainly because none of his friends were participating, but also because he didn’t want to miss three hours of school. I persisted though, because I was curious about what such a drill would look like, and in Newtown. I had never heard of such a drill, and my journalist’s curiosity was piqued. How could I not take part, I thought?
That morning, just before 9:30 a.m., an email popped into my inbox. That was followed by a phone call. The recording on the phone and the email were identical in wording.
“THIS IS ONLY A DRILL --- DRILL --- DRILL. ALL STUDENTS ARE SAFE,” the email and phone call started off. “A few moments ago, administration at Newtown Middle School contacted us that an explosion occurred at the front entrance of the school. Immediately, students and staff were relocated to another area of the building and moved to a Shelter in Place. Local police were called and are on the scene.”
We were told we would get further instruction, and, 13 minutes later, we did. Another email followed immediately by a phone call, telling us to go to the Newtown Youth Academy, about two miles away from the middle school, to be reunited with our children.
After going through a series of identification procedures that included school officials swiping my driver’s license through their iPads and iPhones, which contained apps and new software that the district had recently gotten from Raptor Technologies, my son and I came face-to-face.
“Is he your dad?” someone asked. He said yes. I signed my name on another iPad, and with that, we were done. We walked outside and made small talk while he waited to get back on the bus. I told him I would see him later, then I drove home and he went back to school.
When I got home, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about the exercise, about the fact that on top of teaching students how to read, write, and do arithmetic, school must also now teach them how to blockade themselves in classrooms, how to evacuate a dangerous building, and then how to be reunite with their parents.
Professional development for school staff now includes simulating active shooters in the hallways and explosions in the entranceway, all with the aim of making sure they could save lives if that one thing that should never happen again does happen again.
It is not surprising, of course, that Newtown Public Schools go farther in practicing school safety than just about any other district in the country. Mark Pompano, the district’s director of security, says that every school in it — four elementary, one intermediate, one middle and one high school — all perform at least five different types of drills every school year.
The most common is the fire drill, which is done seven times during a regular school year. Some of the other drills include evacuation, where students are led out of the school and off-property, a shelter-in-place or high-wind drill (for a school in the Midwest, you could just substitute tornado drill, something we did at least once a year when I was a kid in Ohio), and one lock-down drill. When almost any drill is done, parents get extensive emails first notifying us when and how it’s going to happen, and then a report on how it went. When my daughter was in the fourth grade, our first year in Newtown, the school did a lockdown drill. Four hours after that drill, parents got the email from the school principal that broke the drill down.
“Everything is fine. This is a non-emergency safety message,” the email started, as almost all emails start when they come from Newtown Schools. “At approximately 10:20 a.m. this morning, Middle Gate School initiated its lockdown exercise. The children, staff, and guests moved to their designated safe (out of sight) spots for a few minutes. Members of the Emergency Response Team (ERT) went to the nearest safe (out of sight) spot and were then radioed to performed their roles.”
Later, the email said, “It is important to share that the exercise was an overall success… Again, everything is fine at Middle Gate School.”
As for the reunification drill, this was the third time the school district had done it since the Sandy Hook shooting. Newtown is one of the few, if any, districts in the country that does it.
Michael Herrera, the CEO of MHA Consulting said few schools have taken various disaster exercises to the level that Newtown has. Herrera’s company works with businesses and some schools on developing the protocols needed during traumatic events, like active shooters or bomb scares. His consulting firm even writes the scripts that are used in the exercises, which means they likely wrote the emails that I received from the superintendent on the morning of April 11.
Newtown aside, most “school districts aren’t doing reunification exercises,” Herrera said. “Many schools will test some parts of the plan. Many don’t want to spend the money to help with the expertise that is needed.”
Everything that goes into keeping a school secure from an active shooter, when you add it up, costs a great deal of money; the software necessary to identify individuals entering schools, the cameras to record what is happening in every hallway, and all the cable necessary to connect those cameras, and all the computers needed to tie it all together, not to mention personnel and training for them. And money is something so many school districts in this country just don’t have a lot of right now. Just look at what teachers are facing in West Virginia and Oklahoma and Arizona. Look at the textbooks and the facilities at schools just about anywhere in the country.
One of the reasons that Newtown has that security infrastructure in place now is because companies donated equipment and expertise to the district after December 14, 2012. One company donated more than $100,000 worth of security cameras to the district and installed them for free. Raptor Technologies donated a visitor management system to the district after the shooting. Herrera and his company, too, started meeting with school officials in August 2013, nine months after the shooting.
It’s terrible to think that the protections in our schools now are there and paid for because a gunman walked in and opened fire inside an elementary school.
It’s terrible to think that, on the morning of April 11, I stood outside of Newtown Youth Academy along with other parents, parents whose kids were third-graders in Newtown’s elementary schools the day 20 first-graders were murdered in one of them, participating in a drill that would only happen in the worst-case scenario. We were doing it because we knew it was, sadly, necessary.