MAPLEWOOD and SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — SOMA Justice, a volunteer-run grassroots nonprofit addressing race and inequality in South Orange/Maplewood, NJ, is at the forefront of protecting our children from the harm caused by school safety drills. SOMA Justice has extensively researched school security and the impact of drills on children, as well as gathered feedback from within the South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD) including first-person testimony from children.
On February 20, 2020, the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association released a report titled “The Impact of School Safety Drills for Active Shootings.” SOMA Justice sent this report to Dr. Ronald Taylor, superintendent of SOMSD, on the day it was published. The report includes a quote from a South Orange 8th grader, who said in response to active shooter (also known as “Code Red”) drills: “I was genuinely not sure if I would finish the day alive.”
On February 21, 2020, SOMSD released the February update of its “As a Matter of Fact!” newsletter. In the “Superintendent’s Corner” section, Dr. Taylor addressed the issue of school security and safety drills and the district’s response to the Everytown, AFT, and NEA co-authored report.
SOMA Justice is compelled to fact-check Dr. Taylor’s update to better inform parents on the district’s progress for improving drill. In our review, we found that the newsletter contains some false, misleading, and factually inaccurate information.
Importantly and significantly, the update does not tell parents and the wider community the main takeaway of the Everytown, AFT, and NEA report: active shooter drills cause trauma and they do not recommend that students participate at all. From the report: “Everytown, AFT, and NEA do not recommend these drills for students.” This omission is misleading, as it is not transparently sharing the main point of the report. SOMA Justice advocates that children do not participate in drills.
In the newsletter, Dr. Taylor also says that SOMSD is following five of the six stipulations for trauma-sensitive lockdown drills recommended in the report. In fact, SOMSD is following only one of the report’s six recommendations “that experts have found can help protect students’ well-being”:
1. Stipulation One: “Drills should not include simulations that mimic an actual incident.”
Dr. Taylor asserts that SOMSD has implemented this stipulation. However, this is an inaccurate and misleading assertion.
Current SOMSD drill procedures require that children imitate the processes of a real emergency, by doing things like physically moving into hiding places and remaining silent as well as experiencing police officers rattling door knobs and banging on doors.
SOMA Justice advocates that, if SOMSD insists on including children in preparations, then developmentally-appropriate exercises are conducted in lieu of drills, such as orientations, walkthroughs, and/or tabletop exercises such as those described by Safe and Sound Schools, an organization founded by parents who lost children at Sandy Hook. It is important to note that alternate exercises are acceptable per NJ State law. Pursuant to N.J.S.A.18A:41-6, "School security drill" means an exercise, other than a fire drill, to practice procedures that respond to an emergency situation including, but not limited to, a bomb threat, non-fire evacuation, lockdown, or active shooter situation and that is similar in duration to a fire drill.
2. Stipulation Two: “Parents should have advance notice of drills.”
Dr. Taylor notes in the newsletter that SOMSD still needs to implement this stipulation.
SOMA Justice advocates that staff, students, and parents and guardians be notified at least 72 hours in advance of any upcoming active shooter, bomb threat, or lockdown drill in order to help prepare children at home, especially those with special needs. The report confirms how important this requirement is and SOMA Justice asks that SOMSD implement this stipulation as soon as possible. Unfortunately, we have received reports from several parents of children with special needs that the district has not only refused to provide advanced notice, in recent months the district has actually revoked accommodations that children with disabilities were already received. We find this to be alarming and completely counterproductive in supporting all students.
3. Stipulation Three: “Drills should be announced to students and educators prior to the start.”
After advocacy from SOMA Justice including a petition with more than 550 signatories, SOMSD revised Policy 8420, Emergency and Crisis Situations, in November, 2019, to say that students would “be informed that the active shooter, bomb threat or lockdown is a drill and not a real event while the drill is occurring, including via intercom/loudspeaker and Emergency Mass Notification (EMN) system.”
This is happening but it is inaccurate to say the implementation is problem-free. Many children do not understand that “drill” means “practice” or “pretend” or “not real”. SOMA Justice has had multiple reports of students saying they heard announcements about drills but being terrified and misunderstanding that this was not a real event. Additionally, SOMA Justice is concerned about students who are English language learners and/or who have additional language, auditory, and sensory processing needs.
SOMA Justice advocates that teachers, staff, and administrators receive training in age- and developmentally-appropriate scripts that explain what it means to practice, that they assure children repeatedly of their safety and that there is no emergency.
4. Stipulation Four: “Schools should create age and developmentally appropriate drill content with the involvement of school personnel, including school-based mental health professionals.”
Dr. Taylor stated that this is happening but that is absolutely false. SOMSD has not created any age- or developmentally-appropriate content for teachers, staff, and administrators. There is no difference or nuance between how the drills are done at schools that serve very different ages and populations, from preschoolers to high schoolers.
SOMA Justice advocates that SOMSD rely on in-district mental health professionals—and not security professionals with no expertise with children—who know our children, are involved with drill planning, can watch for signs of distress in children, and can give feedback to inform revisions to the way drills are conducted.
5. Stipulation Five: “Schools should couple drills with trauma-informed approaches to address students’ well-being.”
Dr. Taylor asserts that this is in place in SOMSD but SOMA Justice views this as inaccurate as we do not have anything that supports this assertion. Staff and educators have not received any training on trauma-informed practices, what to do during a drill to calm fears, or what to do after a drill concludes to support the documented trauma the drills cause. Children are not receiving any counseling or opportunities to meditate, reflect, or debrief after a drill before resuming their routine activities.
SOMA Justice advocates that SOMSD train all teachers, administrators, and staff on trauma-informed practices including at a minimum what to do during a drill to calm fears and what to do after a drill to support traumatized students. Children and staff should receive counseling and opportunities to process the impacts of the drills.
6. Stipulation Six: “Track data about the efficacy and effects of drills.”
Dr. Taylor asserts that this is in place but that assertion is inaccurate. If SOMSD insists on continuing to include children in these drills, against expert advice, then there should be a systematic means to collect feedback from building leaders, staff, educators, children, and parents. Staff and educators should receive training on how to recognize signs of trauma and distress, and what to do in response. In addition, parents and guardians should be briefed on how their children may show negative side effects, which may last for days or weeks after each drill. Parents and guardians should have accessible and easy ways to report their feedback to the school and SOMSD. Currently, there is an ad hoc system, with some parents taking it upon themselves to communicate but with no formal outreach from SOMSD. SOMA Justice has seen every post-drill correspondence from each school and none have provided an email address or link to a survey or form where feedback can be collected, or any signs to watch for post-drill.
SOMA Justice advocates that SOMSD develops a systematic communication system for collecting feedback from teachers, students, and families about the effects the drills are having on children.
We as a community can only hope to improve our security practices and ensure the well-being of our children if we have honesty and transparency. The actual facts around this issue are:
- Student participation in lockdown or active shooter drills is not mandated by NJ state law which means that SOMSD is choosing to include children in these drills;
- Students, staff, and parents and guardians should receive advance notice of drills;
- The harms of these drills to children are well documented nationally and locally and outweigh any supposed benefits;
- Drills create a false sense of security; and
- Because of these harms and the lack of documented benefit, drills are not recommended, especially for children.
Our district is choosing to force student participation against the recommendation of SOMA Justice and the Everytown, AFT, and NEA report.
If SOMSD leadership continues to insist on including children in drills, SOMA Justice urges them at a minimum adopt the following changes that are legal under current state law:
- to notify parents and educators in advance,
- involve in-district mental health professionals,
- create or use pre-existing age-appropriate scripts,
- train teachers in trauma-informed practices,
- and develop a more systematic communication system for collecting feedback from teachers and families about the effects the drills are having on children.
To contact SOMA Justice, email SOMAforJustice@gmail.com.