Terror in Chch

How prepared are Kiwi schools for lockdowns?

Analysis: With the findings of the school lockdown review soon to be released, Laura Walters takes a look at schools’ lockdown procedures, how we compare to other countries, and whether they are worth the effort?

The Christchurch school lockdown on March 15 presented a range of issues never before canvassed in New Zealand, including access to bathrooms and communication with parents.

The issues that arose during the four-hour lockdown triggered a review by the Ministry of Education, with input from police and schools.

The Ministry of Education has since completed its review into lockdown procedures, which included scrutinising communications, logistics, and effectiveness. The Minister of Education has been briefed, and the results will be released this month.

The events of March 15 changed the way school communities think about emergency procedures.

Under the National Administration Guidelines boards of trustees are required “to provide a safe physical and emotional environment for students” and comply with health and safety legislation.

This means schools are required to have emergency response procedures, but there is no statutory obligation to have a lockdown policy, and each school is free to create individually appropriate procedures.

The Ministry of Education has resources to help schools, including guidance on planning and preparing for emergencies and traumatic incidents, and a template to help schools create plans.

However, the attacks highlighted gaps, including an absence of lockdown policies, or existing policies and procedures not being practical or workable. This has been acknowledged by principals in Christchurch, and around the country.

Increased awareness in recent months has resulted in at least 40 additional schools contracting specialists to help create these procedures.

And schools that weren’t already doing so have begun running drills to prepare staff, students and families.

“Post-March 15, there’s been a lot more engagement with parents and the acceptance that the schools have got the procedures now and are capable of responding to it.”

Before March 15, many New Zealanders associated lockdowns with the United States – in the first seven months of this year there were between 20 and 30 shootings at US schools, resulting in injury or death. Following Christchurch, experts say Kiwi families understand the need to prepare for a lockdown situation.

But the type and frequency of lockdowns and lockdown drills is contentious, with a growing body of research finding the lockdowns and drills themselves can traumatise children.

Preparing for the worst-case scenario

About a decade ago, police officers Wade and Julia Harrison began developing programmes to help schools create procedures and carry out lockdown training.

Things started off slow, with school communities questioning the need for these types of services. But demand has risen in recent years, and Harrison Tew has taken on a further 40 schools since March 15. They now work with 450 schools across the country.

“We’ve noticed quite a significant change in attitude towards lockdowns for schools,” director Wade Harrison said.

“Post-March 15, there’s been a lot more engagement with parents and the acceptance that the schools have got the procedures now and are capable of responding to it.”

However, schools were in varied states of readiness, with some “glaring gaps” in procedures.

The company worked with schools to create an appropriate plan with each school which would fit with their building layout and alarm system.

“The key thing is a constant reminder to the community that if schools are responding to an emergency, then leave them to deal with it."

The planning and training also included how to communicate with parents and communities, which included using open-source websites to contact parents, raster than clogging up already congested lines through text, email and phone calls.

Harrison said he hoped the review would reinforce the need for schools to have plans, and for everyone to understand their role if an emergency lockdown was required.

“Yes, there is a reality that these events to occur but we have to have a lot of faith, and we should do, in the agencies that are there to support the police...

“The key thing is a constant reminder to the community that if schools are responding to an emergency, then leave them to deal with it."

He also hoped the review would address the issues faced in sustained lockdowns, like the one on March 15. These included planning for moving students around the school to access toilets, food, or healthcare.

Overall, New Zealand’s procedures compared well to other countries, he said, adding that the US and Australia had largely inconsistent policies.

More harm than good?

While Harrison advocates for one or two drills a year, concerns have been raised about the traumatising effect the trainings and false alarm lockdowns can have on students.

Stuff reported parents at an Auckland school raised concerns about a drill, last month.

Meanwhile, recent analysis by the Washington Post found many of the 4 million American children who endured lockdowns in the 2017-2018 school year were left traumatised.

While most kids won’t suffer long-term consequences, some childhood trauma experts suspected a meaningful percentage would be affected in what they were calling “a pressing public health issue”.

And a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Foundation found despite the rarity of such events, 57 percent of American teenagers worried about a shooting at their school.

New Zealand is a starkly different environment to the US when it comes to school lockdowns. Photo: Philippa Wood/File photo

Others likened this phenomenon to the escalating set of preparations for nuclear disaster during the 1950s, which contributed to fear among children. Studies found 60 percent of those kids reported having nightmares about nuclear war.

Harrison said this type of trauma was a genuine concern, and the company took steps to mitigate “creating an emergency from the response”.

They considered critical incident stress management, and the impact the training and lockdown situations would have on students. Harrison Tew carried out careful consultation with the school around students’ wellbeing to make sure leadership was comfortable with the procedures.

However, the New Zealand environment was different to that of the United States, and did not run “active shooter” drills, which included things like barricading and fighting back.

During drills, the scenario presented was often low-level, such as a weather event, a swarm of bees, or a “crazy dog”.

Lockdowns should feel similar to evacuations, and shouldn’t lead to further anxiety, he said.

Learning from a tragedy

Ministry of Education deputy secretary sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said child safety was paramount to how schools and early learning services responded to the tragic events on March 15.

Since that day, the ministry had been working with Christchurch principal associations, representatives of the early childhood sector and Police to look at the whole of the system’s emergency response.

This included looking at existing guidelines, physical logistics, any processes that could improve lockdown practices, communications and procedures required for multiple lockdowns.

“The main thing is, obviously student safety being paramount. And that we recognise there might be multiple situations involving a lockdown, and this situation was our worst nightmare. But inevitably, there might be some things we can learn from it.”

Casey said ministry expected to be updating its guidance and providing relevant information to schools once the review was made public.

Meanwhile, National Party spokesperson Nikki Kaye said it was natural to review procedures following an event like March 15.

“The main thing is, obviously student safety being paramount. And that we recognise there might be multiple situations involving a lockdown, and this situation was our worst nightmare. But inevitably, there might be some things we can learn from it.”

This was not the first school lockdown in New Zealand, and teachers and principals often stepped up in difficult situations, Kaye said.

However, this would be an opportunity to make sure schools were getting the support and training they needed in terms of lockdowns, and that parents knew the role they needed to play.

Access to the correct communication technology would also be an important aspect of the review’s outcomes, she said.

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