Jay Mathews’ “Overdoing School Security” Partially Hits Target

Posted by on January 30, 2011

Locking down eight schools in the vicinity of a Los Angeles high school where a school police officer reported being shot was not overdoing school security.  How the lockdowns were implemented probably was over-the-top, however.

Jay Mathews, a respected education columnist for The Washington Post, partially hit his target in challenging the way lockdowns were put in place in eight Los Angeles schools while police conducted a major manhunt for an alleged shooter of a school police officer on January 19th.  Mathews argues that the lockdowns, during which time teaching stopped and students were not allowed to use restrooms for hours and hours, was “overdoing school security.”

Locking Down Was Not Overdoing Security, But How It Was Done Seems Over-the-Top

Police administrators now claim the school officer falsified his report of being shot by a fleeing individual suspected of breaking into a car near El Camino Real High School.  But this was not known at the time the lockdowns were engaged at other area schools. 

So contrary to Jay’s questioning whether lockdowns were appropriate, they were the right thing to do.  It is not uncommon or unreasonable to lockdown schools in a region where a believed shooter is still loose and could pose a potential threat.

What is questionable, and very likely over-the-top, is that teaching stopped and students were not allowed to use restrooms at the nearby schools for six hours.  The schools should have locked down, but probably not to the level of a full-scale internal lockdown when there was no known threat inside each of the eight schools. A modified lockdown at these schools may have been much more logical.

Multiple Levels of Lockdown: A Common and Practical Approach

Many schools have at least two levels of lockdowns:  One where students are indeed locked in secure rooms and teaching is stopped due to an active threat on site.  The second is a modified lockdown where a potential threat outside of the school results in doors being locked, access controlled, students kept inside, and heightened security and supervision kept in place until an “all clear” is received from authorities.

A full scale lockdown was logical for El Camino Real High School.  The alleged incident was believed to have occurred there and it was logical to believe the suspect could have been in that school.

But a modified lockdown would seem to have been more appropriate for the other eight schools.  While it was believed there was an armed suspect fleeing from El Camino Real High School, I have seen no reports indicating anyone believed the suspect was inside any of the eight other schools.  Locking them down was simply a precaution — one which was reasonable, but not implemented in the most logical manner.

So Jay missed the target by suggesting other schools should not have been locked down. But he nailed it in questioning the method of how they were locked down and the implications of how it was done.

Most Schools Do Not Automatically Evacuate on Bomb Threats

Jay was also on target with his observation about the questionable practice of automatically evacuating schools for a couple hours on bomb threats.  He was off a bit, though, in referring to this as a “standard practice.”

In fact, the “best practice” and most common one we find for handling school bomb threats around the country is NOT to evacuate.  Instead, school and law enforcement officials evaluate each threat incident on a case-by-case basis and respond accordingly.  A suspicious box in the hallway may indeed lead to a justifiable evacuation; however, a vague phone call or scribbling of a non-specific threat on a school restroom stall door may not.

Crisis Plans Must Be Created, Trained, and Drilled in Advance

The way lockdowns were handled in Los Angeles reinforces the importance of schools having solid emergency guidelines, training their staff in advance on these guidelines, and practicing the guidelines through drills and exercises prior to a crisis.  The L.A. school district was criticized just days prior to the January 19th incident for disconnects between mandatory district policy and day-to-day practice when they failed to run random metal detector checks at Gardena High School the day of a separate unrelated shooting incident at that school.

So our friend, Jay Mathews, was in the ballpark on his assessment of the L.A. response.  He just needed a little professional coaching to get him to home plate. 

I hope this helped.  And I apologize for not having something written on it ahead of time to make his pre-writing research easier, and to keep my loyal followers on their toes on this issue.

Ken Trump

Visit School Security Blog at:  http://www.schoolsecurityblog.com

2 thoughts on “Jay Mathews’ “Overdoing School Security” Partially Hits Target

  1. Donald R. Green, CPP, CEMA, CPS says:


    All excellent points. Your descriptions of two-tiered lockdowns and of the best practices for a bomb threat are right on.

    Speaking as the division security chief for a large, urban school district, that is easier said than done. Trying to convince a principal who has been on the job for a number of years that he or she does not have to evacuate at every threat, nor go into complete lockdown for a shooting a few blocks away is a challenge to say the least.

    I have made huge strides in changing that culture here, but I know that many of my counterparts are still facing that challenge on a regular basis.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Thanks, Don.

      Yes, it indeed a challenge to change the culture. As we always like to say, “You can’t change the climate if you don’t change the conversation.” It seems to get harder and harder to get and keep those conversations going in school districts anymore. Sadly, sometimes it is not until there is an incident creating adverse media attention that these issues get serious attention.

      Keep on fighting the fight.


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