Kentucky schools are required by law to conduct four drills – lockdown, earthquake, severe weather and fire – during the first 30 days of the school year and again in January. In addition, a monthly fire drill is required.
No matter the number and types of drills, educators say there are ways to handle them so that students continue taking them seriously – but not to the point of fear.
Jim Barr, the safety and security coordinator for Daviess County Schools, said he has worried whether drill fatigue would become a problem with schools required to do so many.
Students and staff at Burns Elementary in Daviess County hide in a corner
during a lockdown drill last month. (Photo courtesy of Daviess Co. Schools)
“The reason I’ve been worried about it,” he said, “is because I don’t work in a school. When I talk to principals about it, I get an answer I’m glad to hear. … Both the administrators and kids start seeing drills as part of what you do at school.”
Barr said doing them more helps with the muscle memory and it becomes routine. “For that reason, there is a certain good thing about doing them frequently.”
“When it comes to school safety,” Daviess County’s Apollo High School assistant principal Bob Dych said, “I am not sure you can say there is a number of drills that are adequate. All of the different types of drills are important because they all come down to one thing: student safety. Returning students to their home safely each day is our No. 1 priority and the number of drills we do as well as the work done for safety at the school and district underscores how seriously we take that job.”
When schools have a safety drill, it takes time away from school work. Magoffin County High School principal Tony Skaggs says he doesn’t worry about the lost instruction time “because life’s more important.”
“I don’t try to balance (safety drills) with education time because it’s important that we do them and we do several,” he said. “We are required to do so many but we do more than required.”
Deana Caldwell, the school psychologist for Estill County Schools and the president of the Kentucky Association for Psychologists in the Schools, said it’s important for the adults to take all drills seriously so the students will follow suit.
“The more we practice all of our drills and don’t get complacent about executing them well, the better prepared we’re going to be in any kind of crisis situation,” Caldwell said.
Jon Akers, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, said he hasn’t heard any concerns about drill fatigue. But he said schools can throw curve balls at students during drills to help avoid complacency, such as blocking an exit so students and staff will have to take an alternate route out of the building.
“Also, it’s a good idea to remove a student when they are mass exiting, ask a student to come with you, see if the teacher during the drill does take roll outside and is showing they’re missing a student,” Akers said. “So you can throw in wrinkles that will take away a little bit of that boredom. You throw some challenge into it, see what happens.”
Fulton Independent school board Vice Chairman Bill Robertson, who is the chairman of the Kentucky Center for School Safety board of directors, said he doesn’t think drill fatigue is happening right now, “but I think it could happen in the distant future and I think it’s a good point to bring up to remind school leaders that this could be a factor.
“I don’t think you can do too many or too less,” he added. “More is better. You don’t want to do just overload because then it gets to the point where they think, ‘Oh well, it’s just another drill.’ They can become complacent.”
Barr said students take their cue from teachers during safety drills.
“They learn to follow directions from their teachers,” he said. “As long as the teacher doesn’t treat something as a panic issue, then they don’t treat it that way or don’t think about it that way.”
Caldwell agreed, saying, “Our students, they will be looking to you for cues on whether this is serious or not, if it’s OK to joke around or not, and they read teachers’ and staffs’ nonverbals.”
School officials say information and honesty are the keys to not scaring students with drills.
“We focus on clear and honest communication about the drills and the reasons we practice responses to emergency situations,” Dych said. “I believe giving our school family appropriate information, knowing what to do and how to respond, builds confidence and reduces anxiety.”
Caldwell said teachers and staff need to make sure they give students the facts, but keep the language simple.
“We never want to scare a child and give them too many details, but when you give the facts and you give off a demeanor that the adults in the situation are in control and you’re safe, that’s comforting for them and they’re more likely to do what you need them to do,” Caldwell said.
She said it’s important that school personnel know which students could have an anxiety disorder or a post-traumatic stress disorder from something in their past.
“That’s where as a school psychologist that we come in and try to consult with teachers and staff and administrators on letting them know specifically how Suzy may react based on her trauma history or the fact she has an autism spectrum disorder or has been through a home fire. So that may be a trigger for her,” Caldwell said.
In Magoffin County Schools, Salyersville Elementary Principal Willie Cole said the teachers play an important role in letting students know there isn’t reason to worry during drills.
“It’s an extension of the rapport you have with the student. The same rapport you build to guide instruction also benefits that situation,” Cole said. “The classroom teacher, in the best case situation and in most situations, is the person in the building who has the best rapport with those students, so the natural extension is to let the teacher fill that role with guidance and assistance from the counselor.”
Akers agrees that teachers play an important role in keeping the students calm.
“Classroom teachers are truly first responders because they’re the ones who are right there in the trenches when these things happen,” Akers said.
“People are more aware,” said Robertson, who also sits on the KSBA board of directors. “You don’t want to scare kids but you want to make sure you’re aware it could happen anywhere at anytime.”