In the wake of recent school shootings — in Wisconsin and California — Minnesota parents are anxious to know what their children's schools are doing to make sure students are prepared in the event of an active shooter.
But school leaders say they're reluctant to disclose details of the emergency drills they conduct, sharing with parents only information about basic safety procedures they follow to respond to any threat.
Making public their active-shooter emergency plan, school officials say, may compromise students' safety and tip off intruders.
"We are not going to tell you about all the bells and whistles that we have inside going off," said Chandra Kreyer, emergency management coordinator for Anoka-Hennepin Schools, the state's largest school district. "That's how we keep your kids safe."
Kreyer, a former state training officer for Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said school districts follow general guidelines from state and federal authorities, and then come up with their own specific training methods to combat threats.
Minnesota law requires school districts to conduct five active-shooter drills a year. Parents are not notified and students are not always told when the drills will happen in order to better prepare them for unexpected situations.
While such training exercises have the potential to save lives, the National Association of School Psychologists warns there are risks. If not conducted properly, the group says, the drills could cause psychological and physical harm to students and staff.
The association advises that school-employed mental health professionals should be involved in every stage of training, and parental consent should be mandatory.
To allay increased parent concern over active-shooter drills, many Minnesota school districts are changing their safety protocols and how they conduct drills, making clear what their approach is and avoiding the term "active shooter" to minimize fear. Teaching the drills in a way that young children and students with special needs can learn more quickly also has become a focus.
This school year, Anoka-Hennepin and South Washington County Schools implemented a new drill, moving away from using "lockdown" for every event to a more action-based approach like "lockout, lockdown, evacuate and shelter." The plan, originally created by a family who lost their teenage daughter in a school shooting in 2006, was recommended to school districts by law enforcement. It emphasizes swifter evacuation tactics that involve more quickly reuniting students with their families during a crisis.
School districts also have the option to use the "hold in your classroom" approach — allowing students to remain in their classrooms while staff conduct hallway sweeps.
To synchronize school emergency training and communication, Anoka-Hennepin is installing a high-powered two-way digital radio system to connect all of its schools to district offices and first responders under the same network.
Rick Kaufman, executive director of community relations and emergency management coordinator for Bloomington Public Schools, said school districts often see a spike in parent calls when deadly school shootings happen. In response to the rising number nationwide, more Minnesota school districts have been investing in new ways to design school buildings, examining mental health issues and mobilizing law enforcement to safeguard students and staff.
School districts also are learning from school shootings. Since the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Minnesota school officials started instructing students not to leave their classrooms if they hear a fire alarm during a lockdown unless school officials give them the green light, Kaufman said. The smoke from the gunfire triggered the fire alarm at the Florida school, prompting students to flee classrooms and enabling the shooter to kill more people. Minnesota school leaders now tell students and staff that if it is a real fire, their schools' fire suppression systems will knock down any flames and smoke.
The Bloomington district, which recently tightened its security measures, expanding its training and drills to before- and after-school hours, had an actual lockdown recently. A lunchroom fight between students involved a knife and quickly turned into a bloody crime scene. The school immediately went into a lockdown to assess the threat and usher students to safety.
School officials later moved students into "shelter in place," which meant business went on as usual but no one was allowed to leave or enter the school building — a method school safety experts consider to be the least restrictive.
More options wanted
Bloomington and Minneapolis Public Schools use the same drill as Anoka-Hennepin and South Washington County Schools. But Minneapolis district officials have added REACT — recognize, evaluate, act, communicate and take inventory — a framework they say uplifts students and gives them more options during an emergency.
Like many districts, Minneapolis does not have an opt-out policy for parents who object to the training. But Minneapolis and some other districts will excuse individual students from participating in drills on a case-by-case basis.
"We wish we didn't have to do the drills, but the reality is, in this day in age, we can't be unprepared," said Jason Matlock, Minneapolis Public Schools' director of emergency management safety and security.
Minneapolis parent Cate Long said her 8-year-old daughter's elementary school was training her to hide in a closet to dodge bullets and to fight an intruder using classroom objects as a weapon. Emmeleia Gartner, a third-grader at Northrop, is unfazed by an active shooter and can't wait to show off her skills in real time, her mother said.
But Long said the drills are churning up old trauma for her child and she wants to opt her daughter out of them..
"I am infuriated that the response to the school shootings is to traumatize our kids," Long said. "I'm OK with her not doing any drills for the rest of her scholastic career because I don't think it's going to keep her from being killed."
Meanwhile in Duluth Public Schools, students and staff are using a type of drill known as ALICE — alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate. School officials alert students that an active shooter is in a specific wing of a school building, which immediately puts the school on lockdown. Doors are barricaded, students are ordered to stay out of sight and are told to quietly hide in a corner with lights off. But if students and staff can't find a safe space, they are free to leave the building and seek protection and, as a last resort to fight an attacker.
Duluth is also working on putting together a plan for its students with special needs and is gearing up for a districtwide active-shooter drill this school year that will involve the community, law enforcement and neighboring school districts to combat threats.
"We all like to follow that plan," said Jeff Horton, assistant superintendent for Duluth Public Schools. "But we're giving people more choices to decide what is best for themselves. That is a shift in mind-set."
Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203