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Lockdown drill: training for the unthinkable

Courtesy: Mott High School

School shootings explode into communities with no warning.

In the aftermath of Columbine, Sandy Hook and other school shootings, Michigan now requires schools to conduct at least two lockdown drills each year.  

This is the story of how one school trains for the unthinkable.

Mott High School in Waterford is a bustling complex the size of a small town.  The hallways typically buzz with the sounds of 17-hundred students.

But today this school will go into lockdown - for about 15 minutes. 

It took just that long on December 14th for a gunman in Newtown Connecticut to fire 200 rounds.  In that time, he killed 20 elementary school students and 6 adults. 

So the students and faculty here take this stuff seriously.

photo of David Lessel, Assistant Principal at Waterford Mott High School
Credit courtesy: Mott High School

David Lessel is the assistant principal. He says Mott conducts drills like this one about every other month.  That’s way more often than the state requires, but the school thinks it’s well worth it.

"We feel that if there’s going to be a crisis, it’s not going to be a fire crisis", he says. "It may be another type of crisis.  So if we have to deal with an intruder, we want to be sure we’re prepared for that."

Before the drill begins, Lessel checks in with the 15 response team members, and then the drill begins.

Over the school intercom, he announces, "staff...at this time, please escort your students to a safe zone within your classes.  At this time Waterford Mott High School is under Full Lockdown."

Within seconds – the entire complex goes quiet.

Research on school shooters suggest they look for easy targets of opportunity and avoid locked doors. 

Lessel says the strategy is to make the school appear just about deserted..."shutting their doors, making sure they’re locked.  Turning off the lights, leaving the blinds open.  And then asking our students to retreat to a safe area within the room."

So throughout the school, teachers literally practice hiding with their students.

Lessel says his final step for every drill is to focus on areas of improvement. "There’s going to be disruptions...there’s going to incidences.  It’s about how you address those incidences to restore order.  That’s the key."

Restoring order and correcting incidences actually may mean saving lives.  Teachers and administrators hope they practice often enough that their training will kick in if the unthinkable ever does happen here.

photo of Students in class at Waterford Mott High School.
Credit courtesy: Mott High School

Sandy Ballantine has taught Language Arts for twenty years at Mott.  She says students think about what could happen well after the drills. 

"Other questions will come up and they’ll bring ‘em up", she notes. "And then we’ll talk about it in class and talk about what we do to make sure that they know that things are under control."

Ballentine adds that despite Mott’s size – teachers feel a strong connection to their students. "They’re in rooms of 30 at a time.  We don’t feel 17-hundred, we feel the ones that we’re with then.  We’ve been here.  Columbine…my sons were here – so that it’s a large family. They’re my kids."

Sometimes there’s another layer to these drills that people may not see.  Because it’s not just about where to hide or how to remain quiet.

Sally Himmelspach is an administrator with 18 years’ experience at Mott.  And she says sometimes students need something more profound...

"I had a little girl who I’d never seen before, walk in and say “I just need reassurance.” I said ‘ok’. She said 'am I safe?' And she wanted a hug – she got her hug."

Historical footnote

We all hope and pray that it can't/won't happen here.   But the worst ever (still) school massacre happened in Bath, Michigan.

In 1927 abomb went off in the school killing 36 schoolchildren and two teachers.  As the story goes, the man who did it was the school caretaker and was protesting property taxes.  Click here for NPR's story.

- Chris Zollars, Michigan Radio News.