Every time Jessica Bloom gets a message her son AJ’s school is on lockdown, she worries.
“It’s panicking! You’re scared, you don’t know what to do,” she said outside Edward Gideon School, where her son is a kindergartener.
But once the lockdown ends, Jessica’s worry doesn’t stop.
“It’s a distraction. It’s hard to pick [learning] back up after that happens, so I think it does affect the school,” she explained. “I think it affects the children, and if it’s affecting the school, the parent.”
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School safety experts and the School District of Philadelphia agree that frequent school lockdowns can be traumatic for some students and can result in learning loss. But the trauma can be reduced by practicing the lockdowns — essentially having lockdown drills.
Through a public records request, the NBC10 Investigators obtained school lockdown logs kept by the district — as well as school security, or lockdown, drills.
The records showed that between 2018 and September 2022, there were 342 lockdowns for reasons ranging from gunshots and police activity in the area, to fights and intruders inside school buildings.
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“Frankly if you’re a school right now in 2022, you’re probably going to face a lockdown situation,” said Amy Klinger, a school safety expert with the non-profit Educator’s School Safety Network. “It’s just a question of how severe it’s going to be.”
The number of yearly lockdowns in Philadelphia decreased after the pandemic, but according to Klinger, lockdowns are increasing across the country
Klinger explained frequent lockdowns can be traumatic, but don’t have to be if schools are prepared through proper drilling.
“Because the anxiety comes from, ‘I don’t know what to do. No one knows what they’re doing.’ That’s where the anxiety comes from,” she said.
Above is a map of school lockdown drills in the School District of Philadelphia during the 2021-22 school year. The light orange dots represent shooting incidents. Red dots marked with an asterisk represent schools where a lockdown drill was not completed, according to district data, but district officials say were completed and either not uploaded into the city’s system or completed too late for the data to be loaded into the system.
The NBC10 Investigators also requested the School District of Philadelphia’s security drill logs.
Security drills, which are usually referred to as lockdown drills, have been mandated by the state since 2018. Each school is supposed to have a lockdown drill within the first 90 days of the school year.
According to data provided by the district and filed with the state, 22 schools in Philly did not have a security drill in the 2021-22 school year.
The district’s Chief Safety Executive Kevin Bethel said he wasn’t aware of schools not having done their drills until the NBC10 Investigators asked about it.
“It ultimately would lead to me being made aware,” Bethel said.
But he added that after doing an internal review of the data, his office determined that it was five schools that missed the drills. The rest of the schools, he said, did the drills but either did not input in the system or did the drills past the state-mandated deadline.
“I’ve been dealing with kids being killed at my school. Two homicides at my school. Guns coming into my school. Shootings at my school. Violence at my school,” Bethel said. “My world doesn't just sit around these drills and sitting here looking at a sheet of paper to see if they drill. So, that's not to diminish those, but also put it into the reality of the world that I deal with.”
The state Department of Education is supposed to keep tabs on each district certifying that they did the drills.
Officials at the department, however, declined our numerous requests for an interview. In an e-mailed statement, a department spokesperson says, part:
“PDE could initiate the educator discipline process if it there was a situation where that was warranted, but we’re not aware of that being done in the past.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Gary Day (R., Lehigh, Berks) was the main sponsor of the bill that led to the drilling mandate. He says the state should be making sure districts are complying with the law.
“I would hope the first step would be to reach out to the school district, aid them in whatever is, keeping them from being able to do that and then, you know, and progressively move towards different types of discipline,” Day said.
The punishment for not completing a security drill is a misdemeanor crime.
“Man, I didn't think we would need legislation to tell people to do this. I thought this would be obvious,” Day said.
As for the lockdowns themselves, Chief Bethel acknowledged the trauma to students can be “significant.”
But he explained the district has implemented changes in recent years to limit the anxiety and learning loss.
There are now three tiers of lockdowns in district schools: Hold, Secure, and Full Lockdown.
A hold status means students can continue learning—they’re just kept in classrooms during an emergency inside a school building like a fight.
A secure status means no one is allowed in or out of the building in the case of a danger outside the school—like gunshots in the area.
A full lockdown means there is a direct threat to the school, and only a full lockdown requires stopping teaching, locking doors, and sheltering in place.
“I think that breaking [these tiers] apart enables us to lower the trauma that impacts our children…[and] the staff as well and the school leaders as well. I think it’s a combined community,” said Bethel.
While lockdowns are nerve-wracking, Jessica still believes the best place for her son AJ is at school.
“I like to think they have my best interests, and my son’s best interests at heart,” she said.