After last week’s accidental lockdown at John Jay High School, I’ve been asked by a few people in the community: “How exactly does that happen?”
My answer to that is: If a federal employee can inadvertently warn an entire state that a nuclear missile is incoming (as happened in Hawaii earlier this year), then anything is possible.
In all seriousness, I asked Superintendent Andrew Selesnick that very question. As I expected, for safety and security reasons, he was reluctant to share the specifics of what triggered last Thursday’s lockdown. By telling me how the district failed, he would be telling others how to succeed.
Though it is a bit more complicated than “pushing a button,” Selesnick said, the district has made it easier to trigger a lockdown at its schools. The reason for this, he said, is “sadly obvious,” referring to the tragic events that are happening in our nation’s schools at a disturbingly high rate.
The possibility of one of these events happening in our schools is very real. So real that districts often hold “lockdown drills” to prepare for these worst-case scenarios.
That wasn’t the case last Thursday, though, when around 3:16 p.m. an alarm sounded in the high school. Because of these drills, teachers and students remained calm and immediately knew what to do and how best to stay safe.
For a complete outsider, the situation could be a bit unnerving. The only drills I remember from my time as a student were fire drills. We walked outside in single-file lines and stood outside for five minutes before returning to our classes. We did them so frequently that I started to enjoy them, especially because they got me out of class.
Well, on Nov. 1, I got my first taste of what a modern-day lockdown drill looks and feels like. I arrived at the school around 3 p.m. that day to cover a play rehearsal and, during the next hour, I got to know the students and staff better than I had hoped.
The alarm sounded in the middle of my interview with Amanda Urban, an English teacher and director of the upcoming fall play, “Harvey.”
“I think we’re in a lockdown,” a student told Urban, who reacted by telling the kids, and me, exactly what we needed to do. There was no hesitation on her part as she followed the lockdown protocol to a T.
Like Selesnick, I won’t go into detail on what that protocol was, but I can tell you how I felt during the next 30-plus minutes. I was probably the oldest person in the room, but I was definitely the most scared. I had never experienced anything like it before.
I pondered texting my wife, but was too frozen. The kids, however, were surprisingly calm. Some whipped out their phones, some joked, some relaxed. It reminded me of how I used to be with fire drills.
After 10 minutes went by, it was clear this was no longer a drill. Eventually, rumor started to spread that it was an accident and I breathed a sigh of relief. The damage was done to my shirt, though, which started out light grey, but was significantly darker by the time it was over.
The news of it being an accident apparently hadn’t spread to other parts of the school, where, I was told by a parent, some students were barricading doors as if the threat was real. Eventually, New York State Police arrived on the scene and cleared every room.
Thursday’s event was a frightening learning incident for district administrators, teachers and students, who I’m sure will work to refine their lockdown protocol—and make the “button” a bit less easy to push.
Though we live in unfortunate times where these drills are necessary, I can bittersweetly report first-hand that the Katonah-Lewisboro School District is well-prepared for the worst. It’s one thing to know how to react in a drill, but it’s another to put those teachings into action when the real thing happens.
Let’s just hope they never have to use them again.