Emek Hebrew Academy Shares Wisdom and Worries following their first Lockdown
On May 21st, Emek Hebrew Academy enforced a lockdown after a male intruder was seen running through a side gate at the edge of the campus. The lockdown lasted one hour, during which time, the students and teachers were locked in their classrooms, lights were turned out, and the children sat underneath their desks and away from doors.
Pre-first graders were told there was a snake that had escaped from the science room, first graders listened to whispered stories and older students recited tehillim or quietly read books while waiting for further instructions. Some children had a hard time processing the event and for many the lockdown experience was dramatic and emotional. From large interior windows, they could hear helicopters overhead, see policemen and a swat team scouring the school grounds and hear media trucks arriving with cameras and journalists.
Most parents believed the school acted professionally and efficiently. Information about the lockdown was sent at 10.24am and at 10.36am there was a second email that informed parents that the school was back in session. On the other hand, a few students had retrieved hidden cell phones from their backpacks and their texts were emotional. When parents raced to the school, they were kept out of the building until the event had passed. Only then could they come and find their kids and emotions were running sky high.
In 2013, Michigan passed a law that required 3 lockdown drills per year. Many lockdowns happen every year in America. California, on the other hand, has not made lockdowns compulsory, perhaps because of the cost involved in enforcing the drills. The Wire has reported a shooting, lockdown or gun scare somewhere in the United States nearly every day of this year. Emek started running lockdown drills in 2014.
The National Fire Protection Association confirms that death by fire on school property has virtually disappeared because of the implementation of compulsory fire drills and fire codes. Could lockdown drills save lives and reduce incidents? Are they meaningful? Sandy Hook Elementary school had a lockdown procedure the week before the massacre and still the outcome was tragic. On the other hand, there is no incident of a gunned intruder entering a classroom when the lights are off, the door is locked, the room is quiet and there is no way of seeing inside the room.
Los Angeles Police Department Officer Charles Dinse speaks about active-shooter drills. He explains, there is no right or wrong way to react to a difficult scenario. At the same time, it’s obvious that lockdown drills, for instance the drill promoted by the Alice Training Institute, make it simpler for all the adults at a school to make split-second plans that will maximize safety for one and all.. “Everyone, from yard workers to principals, needs to know what they’re going to do,” explained Dinse, “Even the kids have a responsibility.”
Emek follows a lockdown system that is distinct from their fire alarm procedure. Teachers know how to lock classroom doors, and cover up windows. The children have been taught to listen when an adult tells them to hide. “If you don’t know how to lock your door under low stress, you’re not going to be able to lock your door during go time,” Dinse told The Huffington Post. “The quicker the school can respond to protect themselves, the less likely they are to have casualties. Without that training, you just have chaos.”
Rabbi Solomon, Principal of Emek, was in charge of the lockdown and shared his experience and wisdom with The Jewish Home. ”Rabbi Shifman, our Head of School, called to tell me we were going to call a lockdown because there was a possibility there was somebody on the premises who should not be there. Rabbi Shifman immediately called 911, while I ordered the lockdown over the intercom and in a few minutes we had the students settled in their classrooms.
“People have subsequently asked if it was wise to call the police so quickly. Once they were involved, things were slowed down considerably and the event lasted an hour, although our cameras showed the intruder was not on the premises, so we could have handled this internally in 15 or 20 minutes. The cameras showed that the intruder had entered the trash can alley that separates the school from the adjacent apartment building but had actually never reached the school grounds. I don’t believe there is a law that required us to call 911, but ethically we wanted to make sure that we had done all that we could to ensure safety. I’m sure this was the correct way to respond.
“It took about five minutes for the police to arrive. In the meantime, the vice principals and I did a quick sweep of the school to make sure the hallways were clear and the classrooms were locked and there were no kids in the restrooms or corridors. In truth, I was initially alarmed. Some of the kids told me afterwards that they knew the lockdown wasn’t a drill because they heard my voice quavering when I spoke on the intercom. At the same time, I was calmed when I checked from the top auditorium window and could see there was no-one on the grounds of the school. I went to check outside and I could see one of our security guards through the bushes. Our systems were working.
I have to look after myself as well and keep out of harm’s way, so, I situated myself in front of the security cameras behind a locked door. In retrospect, I think that the principals of a school should have some sort of defensive weapon in their office because we are responsible for the safety of the children, especially in the time it takes before security arrives. I am not trained in firearms, although I am considering making a change in this area.
“Every school, as far as I know, has security cameras and they are essential for this kind of situation. Security cameras help us locate somebody who is on the premises who should not be there. We can also see the hallways and be certain there is no-one roaming around who doesn’t understand there is a lockdown. Lastly, the cameras allowed us to rewind the event and watch it over again to understand the specific details of what happened. In this way, we could see our excellent security guard, Yaakov Eini giving chase down the alley, but we could also see there was no-one ahead of him.
“This was the first time in the history of Emek that we had to put the school in lockdown. In fact, a few weeks ago, there was a shooting incident in Van Nuys and we were in contact with the Van Nuys Police Department and considered whether we needed to lockdown, but that time we were told the situation was not close by. In contrast, Valley Beth Shalom went into precautionary lockdown when they heard what was happening at Emek.
“Given this experience, I think it is critical and imperative that Jewish day schools have some defensive system. That should include a lockdown and safety drill. They should put this in practice and rehearse a few times a year because you never know when that drill will be needed for real. This was our third lockdown of the year and the previous two were practices. Initially, the teachers thought this was another practice and I had to immediately make it known through the loudspeaker system, that this was for real. The distinction was important.
“Until a real event happens, you don’t know how teachers and students will react. The true test of a person is how they will behave under fire. I know that some teachers found the situation very stressful, but the teachers were professional and efficient. Their job was to make sure that the children were calm and they succeeded.
“When the police arrived, they sectioned of the area and circled a helicopter to have an aerial view. I think there was second helicopter from a TV station. The police were excellent and came with a 15 people Swat team with rifles. Their response was fast, efficient and thorough. That was crucial.
“The event has opened our eyes to experiencing the drama of a lockdown without having been in a truly devastating situation. The students and the teachers now know what to expect which will have long term benefits. We’ve followed up with a survey to the teachers to find out what we could do, both large and small details that could make a situation less stressful. Ideas, for instance, include a text messaging group for emergencies so teachers can be regularly updated without worrying the kids. We’re also meeting with the head of the security company to discuss some changes to the way we will position our security guards in the future. We will add snacks to classroom supplies in case a lockdown were to be lengthy, and also bags in case someone needs the restroom or throws up.
“I’ve been through different seminars with the BJE, (Builders of Jewish Education), which have discussed ways to run a lockdown or a fire drill or an earthquake. Still, I found that common sense was also integral to my plans. For instance, every ten minutes, I went on the intercom and gave the whole school a short update. This was immensely helpful and calming.
“Nearly every parent who tours Emek has a question about security and this school has a full safety procedure based on the manual of the LA Unified School District. Every school should have one. We have a system in place for an Incident Command Center to handle the unlikely event of a Fire or Earthquake or Act of Violence. Every school worth their salt should have these plans laid out. Each year we educate the teachers with these procedures and make sure they can implement the safety procedures in the required timeframe.
“Information sharing from those in command, is essential. We were focused on running the logistics and this was crucial in allaying children’s fears. An organized classroom with a structure and a system, boosts kid’s confidence. The kids have to feel that somebody has their back. During a lockdown we are focused inwards on the event. For outside and parent information it would be far more sensible for every school to have a communications exec. who is not on campus and who could communicate with other schools, parents and the media. Getting accurate and timely information is the job of the school principal, but sharing the information is the job of a PR person and every school should assign someone who could be called on at a time like this. We now have one.
“There were incidents of parents demanding the attention of the police whose attention should have been entirely focused on checking the facility. Some parents called the school phone repeatedly and blocked the phone lines. It’s essential for adults to respect the school’s procedure and keep the intensity and hysteria out of the way. Parents have every right to see their child after such an event, but in this most students were able to deal with the situation without having to recover at home. Should parents take their child home after a lockdown? If a parent feels their child is a nervous wreck, then it makes sense.
“Parents have a deep desire to protect their children, but parents need to understand that it doesn’t help if they are looking out for the interest of their child as an isolated goal. They have to trust the school to act in the very best interests of every single person. During an event like this, parents forget to trust and this, combined with the diversity of the parents, lead to more emotional drama that we felt was in the best interests of those involved.
“We also called a school wide assembly straight afterwards and gave credit to the students on how well they behaved and how well they performed. They needed to hear that we have a safe campus and it remains safe, they needed closure; the event was over. It was incredible, but few children went home when classes resumed.
“Emek has a policy of no cellphones on campus. I can’t imagine how a school, which allows kids to have phones, would have dealt with the nightmare of fearsome texts being sent during a lockdown. Cellphones are becoming more and more common and parents have the right to rely on them and they are a great tool, but at the same time they can create problems.
“You practice, you practice, you practice, but nothing really prepares you for the real deal and what we went through has enabled us to get a greater sense of what needs to happen. Some changes will be minor, some more substantial. Practice often and practice early. Practice sets you up to know the systems. Every school needs a lockdown procedure and they need to rehearse it. This is not a financial consideration, it’s sound judgement.