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Emily Welker, Published February 03 2013

Some coping with anxiety after Carl Ben school lockdown drill

FARGO – School officials here are looking at ways to help students cope with anxiety created by intruder lockdown drills after one such drill caused some parents to complain.

That drill, conducted Jan. 18 at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School, involved a scenario in which an “intruder” pulled a school fire alarm, causing the school to go into lockdown. A Fargo School District spokesperson said students and staff are trained not to leave classrooms when fire alarms go off unless they smell smoke, because a real intruder could pull the fire alarm to try to lure people out of classrooms.

School officials said neither children nor staff were warned in advance that the situation wasn’t real, although one PTA mother for Carl Ben Eielson said her child’s teacher told the class it was a drill. Tari Wieers said her son Connor reported the teacher telling students that they were only going to put one desk in front of the door, instead of all the desks, the way they would if it was a real intruder.

Superintendent Jeff Schatz said he could not confirm whether a teacher was warned in advance that the “intruder” was not a real emergency, and said his understanding from Carl Ben Eielson’s principal was that teachers were not warned.

Principal Brad Larson said none of the teachers were warned in advance about the drill, and that this one was executed in the same way as another intruder drill held at Carl Ben Eielson earlier in the school year.

“The only difference was Sandy Hook,” Larson said.

Wieers said the PTA heard complaints from two parents, including one reporting a student may have had a panic attack during the drill.

“I don’t know,” said Wieers, adding that since her son was not bothered by the incident, she had not reacted with concern when he came home and told her about the drill. “He was in a classroom with a teacher who remained calm and knew it was a drill. … There wasn’t chaos or fear.”

Wieers said that for the most part, parents had positive reactions to the drill. The PTA discussed the complaints at their recent meeting, but since the principal had been unavailable to talk with them, the issue was set to be re-addressed at the meeting set for next month.

School officials said the students were informed by the principal’s intercom announcement that the scenario was only a drill after the exercise was completed. Then, the spokesperson said, students were debriefed in their classrooms. The spokesperson said after the first drill, teachers and students are routinely not warned in advance, either that the drills are coming or that they are not real intruders.

“You try to be vigilant, practice and have drills, but I think also the debriefing where we’re letting people vocalize is important,” said Schatz.

The drill, which is the second of three such lockdown drills required this year at the school, was originally set for December but was postponed because of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn. Schatz said he doesn’t think the intruder drill was too soon after the mass murder, which occurred at an elementary school and left 20 children and six staff members dead.

He noted that there were more school shootings that occurred throughout the nation between the Sandy Hook massacre and the intruder drill at Carl Ben. “It’s kind of like, what do you do?” he asked.

“The issue that’s causing some real anxiety is that it happened at an elementary school” for the first time in American history, said Schatz, and noting that after the mass murders, staff throughout the district were instructed to watch students and each other for signs of anxiety and other difficulty coping with the news.

“Now that it happened at an elementary school, on that sacred ground, it is really disturbing,” he said.

Schatz said that the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, Nancy Jordheim, was investigating the drill and was set to address questions on it and whether the district could take steps in the future to alleviate anxiety in students.

“I’m very sensitive to the anxiety levels in staff, anxiety levels in parents, anxiety levels in kids,” Schatz said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541