What happens during a school lockdown drill?

New Paltz Police Chief Joe Snyder. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Lockdown drills have become as commonplace in 21st century schools as air-raid drills were half a century ago, but what happens during one? In short, it’s a practice to make sure that, should an armed intruder seek access to a school building, no one will be caught in the line of fire.

A lockdown is called during a serious situation, when an intruder is in a school building and believed to be dangerous. Another type of safety measure, a lockout, is used when there’s a threat outside but possibly near a school building; in that case the exterior doors are locked and no unauthorized person is allowed in or out.


“The main point is to be out of sight,” said Maria Rice, New Paltz Superintendent of Schools. A secondary goal is to make it as hard as possible for a shooter to look for those in hiding, hence the neologism “lockdown:” all the entrances are locked remotely through the electronic card-key access system, rendering even the cards carried by staff members inoperative for the duration.

When such a drill is initiated, Rice said, anyone in a classroom is to move to an area out of sight from the door or windows. There are sufficient hiding places in nearly every room, but for those in the new wing of the high school, where the large windows allow in a lot of light, they also make it easy to see every corner. Even in a world where “Columbine” and “Sandy Hook” are the watchwords on every parents’ lips, such a design only seemed problematic in retrospect, but the problem has long since been mitigated by adding bullet-resistant glass.

For those in hallways, the drills show that the training is more difficult to remember under stress. There are designated places to go, but Rice said some students caught in the halls have attempted to head “where they’re supposed to be,” their current class, which is not always going to be the closest safe space. Drills during passing times were introduced more recently to see how middle- and high-school students would do during that more chaotic time. Elementary students also pass from one room to another, but always in groups overseen by an adult. Overall, students have been “amazing” during those drills, Rice said, giving credit to them being very “receptive” to learning the protocols.

School safety committee members accompany local police through the building to see how well students and staff members follow instructions. They note any breaches, such as doors left open, as well as flag issues like a key card being able to open a particular door or someone being allowed entry into a locked room. Sometimes they open a door — their cards being capable of such during the lockdown — to see how well everyone is concealed in case an attacker does make it inside the room.

The entire point of locking down a building is to buy time. Every second longer it takes for a shooter to find someone to harm is a second more police have to arrive and neutralize the threat. The drills have become routine, Rice said. “Unfortunately, it’s become a way of life. It’s not even frightening” for students, she believes, it’s “just a way of life,” a fact which she called “heartbreaking.”

With an armed intruder in the building, sometimes it might make more sense to run rather than hide. Under a lockdown, hiding is considered the best move, but Police Chief Joseph Snyder of the town police said that conditions may be fluid. “The idea of the initial lockdown situation is to avoid the threat. If you don’t know where the threat is, staying in place should be a first option [rather] than attempting to flee to an area where the threat may be. Train to be aware of the situation and then act accordingly for the safest outcome.”

Only when the lockdown situation is lifted is it permissible to open the classroom door again. Cautious students have sometimes been reluctant to unlock a door at the end of the exercise, Rice acknowledged.

There are systems in place to notify parents of drills and actual situations, should the worst come to pass; parents unaware of how to sign up should contact a teacher or building principal for more information.