News 13 Investigates: Inside a lockdown drill
North Carolina law requires public schools hold at least one lockdown drill a year. The reality of re-occurring school shootings makes those lockdown drills more important than ever.
News 13 partnered with Henderson County schools to take you to a place few get to go -- inside a classroom for a lockdown drill.
It should be noted News 13 worked very closely with the schools and administration to ensure the integrity of school security protocols and strategies and not to give away confidential details or procedures that might endanger students.
While the drill was conducted at Mills River Elementary, it rings true for many mountain schools.
Inside the classroom
“Problem, solution, struggle and solve,” sang fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Austin and her class as they got ready to tackle reading standards at Mills River Elementary.
“Compare, contrast, alike and different,” sounded the chorus of 23 students. This class, obviously, put the "fun" in learning fundamentals.
“I think students definitely rise to the level of expectations you set for them, and, if you raise the bar high, then they're willing to, they'll do anything for you,” said Jennifer Austin, who’s been teaching for a decade now.
It shows in life skills students learn as part of "The Leader in Me" program.
“Everyone has strengths and gifts that they can offer in any situation,” Austin said as she spoke with News 13.
Austin encourages students to take initiative as they’re working through the lesson.
“Be proactive. I'm in charge of me. Choose your words and actions wisely,” Austin said to the class.
It also rings true as they’re choosing what action to take about something that could threaten their safety.
“Speak up, don't hide it because you feel like you're going to get in trouble. You're not in trouble. That person is in trouble,” said Lucy Jones, one of the fourth-graders in Austin’s class.
In the hallways, it’s like any other Monday. Principal Chad Auten is rarely in his office, instead greeting students as they make their way to classes.
“Good morning guys, good morning, good morning,” Auten said as a group of students passed.
As he walked toward the office and uttered just a couple words, the day’s lessons changed.
The drill begins
“Code red lockdown drill, code red lockdown drill,” Auten said, the words echoing through the classrooms.
Students don't miss a beat.
“They know what to do, they've practiced this many times,” Austin said.
Hallways empty and, without hesitation, teachers start into emergency procedures.
“They darken the windows; they darken the room so that they can't be seen. It does limit the visibility more,” Henderson County Sheriff's Cpl. Jesse Blankenship, one of the school resource officers.
School resource officers arrive and fill the hallways.
“We train; we prepare to go in. And you just go. You don't think about it, because when you have lives of students, we're the first ones there, more than likely, and you go to the threat and try to protect what you can," Sgt. Ricky Bishop said.
“I'm looking that all doors are secured and locked. I'm looking for kids that may still be in the hallways,” said Auten, who also was working his way through the hallways.
From restrooms where officers peer in asking, “Sheriff’s Office, anybody in here?” to the classroom doors, the building is swept, inspected for any safety issues.
As Bishop peered through a door, he explained his process.
“I’m making sure when I look in, that I don't see anybody moving around, that everybody's hiding,” he said.
Inside Austin's classroom, she reassured her students.
“You guys are doing great,” Austin said.
It's silent, not a single student has flinched. They sit stone-faced, waiting.
“We don’t want other people to be listening to us and give away where we were hiding,” Sutton Hughes explained of the process.
“If you're just all goofing around, then you might not be safe if it was a real person in the building and it wasn't just a drill,” classmate Lucy Jones chimed in.
As Auten and resource officers ran through their checklist, they called out the list of secured hallways.
“Yellow hall secure,” Auten said.
“Red hall secure,” Blankenship said.
Within five minutes, the entire building had been secured.
“We are all clear, if you'll go back through and let everyone know we're all clear,” Auten said.
Crews started back through the building, this time letting teachers know they can resume class.
“Hey guys, y'all are good. You're clear, just remain in the class,” Bishop said.
Keeping the community informed is key
Auten is again on the phone.
“Right now, I'm sending a tweet out to let everyone know that our lockdown drill is complete and that's again so the parents and the community are aware, one that we're practicing,” Auten explained.
In the classroom, students are already back on track.
“OK, so why do you think it's chronology over safety, why is that the best choice?” Austin asked.
“You just want to reassure them and alleviate those concerns so that it's not something that they should have to face at their age,” Austin said.
Students say these drills make them feel safe
“You saw, because she was saying, like, 'Good job,' and she knows what she's doing and she loves us and goes out of her way to care for us,” fourth-grader Sutton Hughes said.
“She locks the door every morning so that if there were someone in the building, then they would not be able to get in because our door would be locked,” Jones explained.
In today's environment, Austin said she can't afford to come to school without her game face on.
“Student safety is always a priority, because how can we expect to teach them, how can we expect them to learn anything and make a big impression if they don't feel safe and secure,” Austin said.
Auten said school officials learn something from every drill and often make improvements.
Henderson County Public Schools is also working with the sheriff's office to give every teacher a panic button in every classroom through an app called RAVE Mobile Safety. Teachers could alert the entire campus to the emergency, making the response quicker.