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After a chaotic lockdown, Montgomery schools revisit safety training

The training at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School follows a lockdown in September over reports of a student with a gun

Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School had a lockdown drill last month to enforce safety procedures after a student was reported to have a gun at the school in September. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article misstated that Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Principal Shelton Mooney has been a principal for 26 years. He has 26 years of experience in education. This version has been corrected.

Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Principal Shelton Mooney went over the lockdown scenario with the school administrators again: “You hear gunshots in your hallway. You also hear screams and see students running past your door.”

The scenario would be given to all 2,000 or so students in the school for them to decide what to do. Ideally, the students would be hiding in their classrooms and locking their doors, Mooney explained. Meanwhile, administrators would be patrolling the hallways to see if they could spot any students or gain entry to classrooms.

The school in Montgomery County scheduled the scenario-based drill last month after a report of a student with a gun sent the school into a lockdown for an hour in September. No gun was found, but the incident stunned the school community.

In the aftermath, students reported that not all of them immediately went into lockdown the day the gun was reported on campus since the announcement couldn’t be heard via the intercom in some areas of the school building. Others shared that substitute teachers didn’t know how to lock the classroom doors and some teachers didn’t follow lockdown protocols at all. Some students continued with quizzes rather than hiding in classrooms. While that was happening, a group of parents who were getting texts from their children showed up and stood outside the school hoping to get more information, an action both the police and the district have since asked parents not to do.

The incident caused Montgomery County Public Schools to revisit training for its students, staff and teachers. As an additional component, the training will also include education sessions for parents and guardians to learn lockdown protocols. Members of the school system’s television station filmed portions of Bethesda-Chevy Chase’s drill to potentially use as part of the education campaign.

“When we hit covid, that’s when everybody got a little rusty,” Ed Clarke, the district’s director of school safety and security, said. “Now, what we’re trying to do is ‘refresh, reset’ training.”

All Maryland schools are required to teach lockdown training. In Montgomery County, students learn “lockdown with options,” which teaches students to hide in a classroom, flee from the building if they need to, or — when age appropriate — be prepared to defend themselves as a last resort.

The glitches during Bethesda-Chevy Chase’s September lockdown are common issues within other school districts, and part of why lockdown training drills are so important, said Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.

“When things go wrong, they tend to be a lot of small pieces combined that create the perfect storm,” Trump said, emphasizing that drills help reduce the risks. School districts should be communicating expectations with parents and students in advance of a lockdown happening, he said, especially because trust in law enforcement’s response has dropped after a May shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., where police waited over an hour before confronting the gunman.

How a school lockdown — even when there’s no gun — can terrify

Mooney said in his 26 years in education, the incident in September was the only time he’d been in an actual lockdown. Afterward, it was clear to him that changes needed to be made to the school’s planning process, which included running the scenario-based drill. The school repaired its intercoms that had been faulty during the lockdown and hosted a town hall with parents to understand more of the issues. Many parents complained that the school was slow with communicating what was happening that day.

“I don’t care if I never have another one, but I want to be prepared for it if there is one,” Mooney said in an interview.

Lyric Winik, the school’s parent-teacher association president, said that when the lockdown went into place in September, her phone was filled with texts from other parents trying to understand what was happening. Her son and his friends had started to piece together that there was not an actual gun well before there was an official announcement from the school district. She said she wished that the school system would have communicated more frankly with parents the severity of the threat earlier on, and prioritized talking with families over members of the media.

She was disappointed when the school system asked parents not to wait outside of the school. Many of those parents’ children were in classrooms where proper lockdown procedures weren’t being followed, she said.

“What I really wish is that the first response coming off of the incident was not such a reflex to the community of, ‘Well you didn’t follow the procedures as we wanted you to do it, and you weren’t willing to wait an hour or more for us to give you the information,’ ” Winik said. “But rather, ‘What can we do to step up so that we are making sure what we know, you know, and that way everybody can make better decisions.’ ”

Some of the same problems happened during a shooting that critically injured a student at Magruder High School in January, said Cynthia Simonson, who has a sophomore at the high school in Derwood, Md. Then, parents similarly voiced concerns about crisis communications and teachers who didn’t observe the lockdown. When the lockdown at Bethesda-Chevy Chase happened, “We felt like we were reading our diaries again,” she said.

“It’s a crisis, everything’s not going to be perfect and mistakes are going to be made,” Simonson said. “You just don’t want to make the same mistakes.”

‘What if someone was shooting?’

The school system began developing a new joint crisis communication plan with the county’s police and fire departments. One piece of the communication plan is specific to individual schools on their practices, which will be coming out within the month, spokesman Chris Cram said. Part of the updated plan includes “a commitment to communicate early on what we know.”

At Bethesda-Chevy Chase’s drill, Mooney relayed the scenario to students through the intercom system, adding at the end, “This is a lockdown drill.” He was sure to be specific. When the actual lockdown happened the previous month, he read verbatim from a script given by the school system. Many teachers assumed that the lockdown was a practice scenario. “What I should have said last time was that this is not a drill,” he explained.

During the drill, Mooney watched administrators monitor the hallways via the school’s cameras. He watched staff members approach doors to verify they were locked. As administrators checked the hallways, they confirmed via the radio system that each part of the building was clear. After a few minutes, the school went into “a public safety shelter,” in which classroom instruction could resume but students had to remain under adult supervision at all times.

After Mooney lifted the shelter, administrators gathered in a conference room to debrief. Some of the teachers let students out of class before Mooney called off the shelter, but that was probably because they followed the time-stamped drill schedule they were given in advance, administrators said. Some teachers needed help getting their door locked. The school has a complicated system — doors in the newer part of the building require two keys, while other teachers primarily rely on magnet strips to keep their doors open during the day. At times, students could be heard talking in classrooms when they were supposed to be silent.

One of the staff members shared that she watched the training in a classroom where students are learning English as a second language. During it, the staff member helped interpret specific words, since there was terminology the students didn’t understand. The school system rush-ordered training presentations in additional languages.

But there were also improvements. The repaired intercom system was clearly audible in areas where it was hard to hear during the actual lockdown. In one of the building’s wings, teachers reported students could be seen through the blinds, but during the drill, administrators found no students could be seen.

Mooney said that the simulation would never be the same as an emergency, but he wanted students, staff and teachers to develop muscle memory through the drills.

“My goal is that everyone who comes in here safe,” he said, “leaves exactly the same way we came in.”

More on local education

The latest: In Loudoun County, a conservative candidate and a left-leaning candidate were leading in the race for two seats on the school board. Meanwhile, a majority of incumbent school board members in Maryland’s metro area were leading in their reelection bids.

K-12 classrooms: The Montgomery County school system is revisiting safety training after a report of a student with a gun led to a campus lockdown. New safety protocols also are in the works in D.C. after a bus driver crashed a bus and was charged with a DUI. A settlement in a public records lawsuit reveals some of the emails submitted to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education tip line.

On campus: The University of Maryland has pledged to expand aid for in-state students who have significant financial need. What the twists, turns and drops of roller coasters are teaching Johns Hopkins University students about engineering.