A note home from his daughter’s Henrico County school last September surprised Kurt Wolfe.
Maybeury Elementary had conducted a lockdown drill that day, and the first-time school parent didn’t know about it.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said the father of two, including a kindergartner at the school. “It’s a conversation I’d like to have with my child if I choose to.”
Wolfe met with the school’s principal, and parents have received notification of the drills ever since. A bill being considered by the General Assembly would require the same from every school across the state.
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, is proposing that every public school in Virginia give parents at least 24 hours’ notice before deploying the training, which has become more common nationwide after deadly school shootings in recent years and in some cases, led to panic.
“The training saves children, and this gives parents the ability to have that discussion with their kids if they want to,” said VanValkenburg, a high school teacher. “Schools are safest when everyone in the community is involved.”
Said Wolfe: “Parents have to make their own decisions about the discussions they want to have with their children, but you cannot make that decision if you don’t have knowledge of what’s going on.”
VanValkenburg’s bill is among an array of school safety-related legislation being taken up by the General Assembly in the first session after the deadliest school year in recent decades. A special committee convened after the year’s deadliest shooting — a massacre in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead — finalized 24 recommendations that make up much of the legislation.
Some of those bills, including changing how school counselors do their jobs and making districts have agreements with school resource officers to define their roles, cleared their first hurdle last week in making it out of the House Education Committee.
The first-term legislator’s bill was not part of the package approved by the Select Committee, which VanValkenburg served on. Instead, he said, the legislation came from his own experience as a parent and teacher, and from hearing from constituents.
School safety experts say lockdown drills are necessary in order to be prepared for a potential threat, but advanced notice to parents couldn’t hurt.
“These types of drills are new and can be anxiety-provoking,” said Michele Gay, who co-founded a nonprofit organization, Safe and Sound Schools, after her daughter Josephine was killed in the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. “It’s a relatively new, uncharted territory, so I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have guardrails like Virginia is considering.”
Close to 95 percent of schools in the U.S. conducted an active shooter drill in 2015-16, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s up from 43.5 percent of schools in the 2003-04 school year. The majority of states, including Virginia, passed requirements for schools to hold lockdown drills after the deadly 1999 Columbine school shooting.
Gay said that while common drills in schools like fire drills don’t cause much stress, lockdown drills can lead to emotional stress.
“When it comes to a threat that’s a human threat — psychologically it’s not the same,” she said.
The most public case in the Richmond region of a lockdown drill gone awry came last spring when an unannounced drill at Short Pump Middle School in Henrico caused panic and a district evaluation of its lockdown drills. The district has since changed how it’s conducting lockdown drills and is now more in line with what others in the area do.
Each Henrico school has four lockdown drills planned this school year, the same number as Chesterfield County, Hanover County and Richmond public schools.
Henrico district spokesman Andy Jenks said the school system decided to change how it does lockdown drills when meeting with Henrico police. In the past, the district’s plans said that 30 to 60 seconds into a drill, people in the school would be told through the PA system that it was, in fact, a drill.
The dates and times of the drills still aren’t announced beforehand, but “when a drill begins,” Jenks said, “it is clear that it is a drill and not a real event. We won’t even wait the 30-60 seconds anymore.”
“While the dates and times of the drills are not released in advance, no one should have reason to believe it is a real event,” he said.
Hanover schools take a similar approach, having a school staff member make a school-wide announcement about the drill. That’s repeated three times, Hanover schools spokesman Chris Whitley said.
“We believe our approach is a good balance between ensuring that our students, staff and faculty are fully aware that it is a drill and simulating an actual event,” Whitley said. “This approach allows us to constantly refine our ability to respond if an actual event occurred.”
In Richmond, the four planned drills — two in September, one this month and one in April — are all unannounced, but Richmond Public Schools spokeswoman Kenita Bowers said the district encourages schools to give parents a heads-up through a principal’s weekly message. Students and staff are told on the day of the drill, she said, “an effort to reduce panic and confusion as to whether it is a real or simulated event.”
“Lockdown drills are essential in preparing for critical incidents at schools, and this practice of general parent notifications coupled with announcements to students and staff on the day of ensures that our Safety & Security team is able to maintain the integrity of the drill,” Bowers said.
Chesterfield County Public Schools spokesman Shawn Smith said the district is monitoring the lockdown drills legislation and is currently weighing a recommendation made by the School Safety Task Force it convened post-Parkland about the drills.
VanValkenburg’s bill has been referred to the House Education Committee.