New York parents push for reform of school lockdown drills

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By Dan Sears

As a new legislative session kicks off in Albany, some New York City parents are pressing lawmakers to reform the mandatory school lockdown drills they worry are traumatizing children.

Since 2016, the state has required all schools – both public and private — to hold four lockdown drills each academic year.

The reform bills, introduced by state Senator Andrew Gounardes and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, would reduce the required number of lockdown drills from four to one per year. They would also mandate advance notice to parents about when a lockdown drill will be held, allow parents to opt out, and require more training for educators. Schools would be allowed to do more than one drill per year if they wish.

Parent Marco Pupo said he first became concerned about the drills after picking his son up from kindergarten at his public school on the Lower East Side.

“The first thing he said when I picked him up was, ‘Daddy, there was danger in school today. There was someone trying to get inside of the school to get us,’” said Pupo, who is among the parents advocating for the legislation.

His son didn’t understand that they were only practicing for a threat. “He continued to insist that it was the real thing,” Pupo said.

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“I don’t judge or blame anyone who created this, but at the same time, I think there’s way better ways of managing this situation,” he said.

The drills are prevalent nationwide as schools try to protect children from gun violence and mass shootings. There were 37 school shootings around the country last year, according to a tally by Education Week.

Brooklyn Tech senior Sonja Aibel said she’s been doing lockdown drills for as long as she can remember, but that hasn’t made her feel safer. “I don’t feel confident that this is going to help us in the case of a threat,” she said. Instead, the drills make her feel more anxious. Crouched in a corner during the drills, her mind calls up disturbing images from the news. “I typically find myself reflecting on recent articles about school shootings at colleges and universities and other schools across America,” she said. “It can be a really scary thing.”

She said it would be helpful if teachers offered students a space to process their fears before or after the drills.

Some research has shown the drills increase anxiety among children.

In a statement to Gothamist, Assemblymember Simon said she was optimistic about the bill’s passage this year. “Parents concerned about the fear and anxiety caused to their children by excessive (four mandated) lockdown drills brought this issue to our attention,” she said. She added that the nature of the drills varies “dramatically” by school district across the state.

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The legislation is in committee. Albany legislators kicked off a six-month session Wednesday.

In New York City, education department officials said teachers are coached in age-appropriate language to explain the drills to students. Typically an announcement goes out that there is a lockdown and students move out of sight and keep silent. Teachers then check the hallways for any students outside their classrooms, lock their doors, turn off the lights, and wait for first responders or an alert that the lockdown has been lifted.

“New York City public schools work tightly with the NYPD to plan, prepare, and respond to all emergency situations,” said department spokesperson Jenna Lyle. ”As part of that essential work, every building maintains robust emergency readiness protocols, including a designated building response team and regular emergency readiness drills.”

The department declined to comment on the reforms proposed in Albany.

Parent Holly Spiegel said she worries the drills might be counterproductive, noting that while school shootings are statistically rare, the gunmen usually come from within school communities. She’s also advocating for the reform.

“We’re actually actually teaching our safety procedures to the people most likely to take advantage of them,” she said.

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Meanwhile, she said, students come to feel less safe when their schools should be a haven from violence.

Greg Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, the union that represents school safety agents, said that it’s the gun laws that are most in need of reforms. “I would like to see them make more stringent gun laws so that the need to have drills is lessened,” he said.

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