Editorial: Yes to school shooting drills, no to mandate

In the 1950s and ’60s, the teacher would tell kids to take cover under desks when the siren signaled an air raid drill.

Fifty years later, teachers lock their doors, darken classrooms and huddle with students in a corner when a lockdown drill is announced over the PA system.

Times have changed, the threats have changed, and the way we prepare to keep ourselves safe must change, too.

Four days after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., Gov. Pat Quinn announced that state agencies in Illinois would look for improvements in emergency response planning. Last week, he stepped it up with a proposal to require all schools to hold drills once a year that would prepare students for a school shooting. While such drills are an important component to student safety and increasingly are being implemented in schools around the state, such a mandate would likely complicate an already difficult task for local districts.

For many years, state law has required schools to hold various drills each year, including fire and tornado drills and bus evacuations. Beginning in 2009, schools in Illinois were required to perform an emergency drill at least once a year that involved local law enforcement. On top of that, schools must review their emergency and crisis plans annually and report them to the Illinois State Board of Education.

With this law already in place, school districts are able to assess their needs and capabilities and come up with a drill plan that fits their situation. Every school is different, intruder situations could vary greatly, and each relationship schools have with emergency responders is unique. A top-down mandate dictating how they carry out these drills could create unnecessary complications for some districts.

The state board of education encourages school leaders to partner with local health departments, police and fire departments and community groups when planning for emergencies. It’s more important than ever for this to happen with decisions being made locally. For instance, Cary-Grove High School’s recent lockdown drill included simulated gunshots with the goal, school officials said, of training students to recognize the sound of gunfire.

Other districts disagreed on that method, as told in a story by staff writer Tara Garcia Mathewson. “There’s no place for that, in my opinion, with students in schools,” said John Heiderscheidt, safety coordinator for Elgin Area School District U-46. He needs the flexibility to make those decisions based on the needs and desires of his school community, just as Community High School District 155 needed that same flexibility to make its decisions.

Sadly, it’s a reality that we have to prepare children and staff for the possibility of armed intruders in our schools. “We cannot wait for another tragedy to happen before we take action,” Quinn told lawmakers in his State of the State speech. Those are words that school leaders should heed. But let individual schools decide how it will happen.

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