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South Valley Journal

Emergency drills don’t have to be scary

Oct 01, 2018 04:27PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Students know what to do in an earthquake drill. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | j.burnham@mycityjournals.com

Schools hold regular drills for responding to emergency situations such as fire, severe weather and active shooters. The shrieking alarms and flashing strobe lights are meant to get the attention of students during an emergency, but even the eerily silent lockdown drills can be frightening for students. 

Administrators and teachers conduct the drills in ways they feel will best benefit their students. 

“We’re thinking about how to train students and give them some information without freaking them out or causing panic,” said Caleb Olson, assistant principal at Sunset Ridge Middle School in West Jordan. 

Carolyn Bona, principal at Midas Creek Elementary in Riverton, believes the purpose of drills is to practice what to do, not to instill fear in the kids. 

For lockdown drills, instead of telling the students they are practicing for an intruder in the building, Bona uses a less frightening scenario—a dog accidentally came into the building, is scared and confused and may bite someone. Teachers tell the students that everyone needs to stay quiet and safely out of the way until authorities catch the animal. 

“We’re still practicing and doing the things we need to do, but we’re not taking away a child’s innocence for a drill,” Bona said. 

When the school is notified of a possible hazard in the neighborhood, only Bona’s teachers know the specifics. 

“I don’t necessarily tell my kids what’s going on,” Bona said. “We do a shelter in place, and we continue what we’re doing. I don’t think they need to be worried about something that probably will never even affect them.” 

At many schools, special arrangements are provided for students who are easily upset by the drills. 

“We try to be sensitive to those needs,” said Buddy Alger, assistant principal at Bluffdale Elementary. “But at the same time, we want students to be prepared in an emergency situation.”

Teachers are aware of specific students in their classrooms who may need a more in-depth debriefing or a warning before the drill begins.

Midas Creek has several students who are called out of class before a fire drill begins. Some are on the autism spectrum, and some have severe anxiety and can’t cope with the piercing sound of the alarm. Bona takes these students outside where they can experience the alarm at a less jarring volume. 

Administrators say parents play a role in preparing their children for understanding the reason for safety drills.

“I think it’s important for us to be very careful of what we say, especially with those little ones that don’t really understand, ” said Abe Yospe, principal at Columbia Elementary. 

He encourages parents to have conversations with their kids about the drills.

“They know their kids a little better than we do and what is going to scare them and what’s going to help them understand,” Yospe said. 

Natalie Bradford is a parent of students ranging from age 7 to 15.

“I don’t think my kids are scared [during drills] because we talk about it with them at home, and they already know what to do,” she said.

Michelle Kilcrease, assistant principal at West Hills Middle, believes frequent drills take the fear out of real emergency situations.

While teaching in Seattle several years ago, she experienced an earthquake. Unprepared by practice drills, her students panicked. Kilcrease, who had had frequent earthquake drills in Utah, quickly and calmly instructed the students on what to do. 

“It was just automatic reaction,” she said. “Oh, earthquake? This is what we do. Intruder in the building? This is what we do. That training takes over the panic because you do have a plan, and you know what to do in that situation.”

Lance Everill, emergency operations manager for Jordan School District, believes the training they receive in school helps kids know how to react to emergencies that can occur anywhere.

“These are life skills they can take with them out into the world,” he said.

While most people think of active shooter scenarios, there are a variety of reasons for a lock-down at schools. 

Everill said schools have dealt with mountain lions, snakes and plane crashes on their property. There have also been gas leaks, intruders, fires and bomb threats.

“It’s important that we not just focus on one emergency but that we work on lots of different ones so if any of those possible scenarios occur, we are better prepared to respond,” said Everill. 

Utah law requires elementary schools to hold one drill each month, alternating fire drills with another type of drill. Secondary schools are required to hold a minimum of six emergency drills each year. Many schools also participate in the Great Utah Shakeout earthquake drill each spring.