Jules E. Mastbaum High School on Frankford Avenue

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In the wake of Billy Penn reporting on 10 years of lax record-keeping, student trauma, and near constant class interruptions over lockdowns, the School District of Philadelphia is fundamentally restructuring the way it deals with and classifies lockdowns.

Officials hope the changes will lead to fewer interruptions of student learning, and make the incidents less traumatic.

Perhaps the biggest change: the word “lockdown” will only be used when there’s an unknown individual inside the building — for example, a potential active shooter.

When it’s other circumstances that warrant a building-wide response, school officials will use new categories that entail varying levels of severity. They’ll use “lock-in” for a fight inside the building, and “lock-out” for violence in the neighborhood.

Also new: SDP officials will visit every school in the district in the next year, training staff on how to deploy these new categories. While they’re there, they’ll also distribute trauma kits to all schools, with gauze and tourniquets in case of emergency.

Over the past decade, Philly schools have reported more than 700 lockdowns. That equates to an average of one lockdown every other school day. Plus, officials admit record-keeping has been sloppy, so the number probably misses many occurrences..

It can be traumatizing to constantly have their education interrupted by violence, some students told Billy Penn, to the point that they had nightmares, even after graduation.

“No question, it’s difficult for our youth,” Chief of School Safety Kevin Bethel said in an interview. “I believe we should be looking at this trauma, especially for young kids, our babies that have to go through this.”

Parents say they’re hopeful that the new procedures will prevent kids from unnecessary trauma. But it doesn’t change their biggest concern — a lack of communication when lockdowns occur. Bethel said that aside from the new classifications, the School District isn’t considering any other changes to lockdown procedure.

“I understand the call for lockdowns,” said Christina Gorham, whose daughter goes to Julia De Burgos Elementary School. “My problem, and what I’ve heard from other parents, is the notification system. If something happens, we need a mass text right away.”

Julia De Burgos Elementary on Lehigh Avevnue in Philadelphia Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Different procedures depending on severity

In the past, the School District would call a lockdown any time there was a threat on a school campus or in the surrounding neighborhood. Whether someone stole something from a school building, or called in a threat, or brought a weapon inside, the procedure would always look the same:

Administrators would make an announcement over the school’s loudspeaker system. As faculty members lock each and every interior door, teachers turn off the lights and guide students to hide in the classroom corner that’s least visible from the doorway.

Then the students wait. They say the incident can take anywhere from 10 minutes to almost an hour, depending on the nature of the lockdown. There is no instruction while the incident is occurring. When it’s over, administrators announce the conclusion over the loudspeaker and the teacher jumps back into instruction.

But school safety officials recently realized that they were equating so many different emergencies under a worst-case-scenario procedure — which had the potential to freak students out more than necessary. So they decided to break it down.

“We needed to classify different ways of locking down, due to the fact that there are different situations that may not call for schools to do a traditional lockdown,” said Tricia London, SDP’s emergency management liaison. “Our expectation is to start drilling it down into the schools in the upcoming year.”

Per London, here are the new classifications and how they’ll work:

The lock-in

Arguably the least severe among the new lockdown procedures, a principal or school staffer would call a lock-in if there were a fight happening among students on campus. Then, all the teachers would lock their classroom doors so more students couldn’t pile into the fight. Teachers are instructed to take attendance, then continue with instruction as normal.

“It could just be something small going on, where we need to make sure an overall environment is stabilized,” London said. “We don’t have to communicate that in a way where it might scare a student.”

The lock-out

Philadelphia police — or a school’s security officer — can call a lock-out if there’s potential danger outside the school that hasn’t yet trickled in. In this case, an officer would instruct a school to secure the perimeter, not allowing anyone inside or outside the building until the threat is neutralized.

But inside the school, operations would proceed mostly as normal.

“In a lock-out, nobody is coming from outside the building in,” London said. “Instruction continues to go on while we monitor perimeters to make sure no one is trying to get in.”

The lockdown

With the above new terminology on the table, SDP officials said the lockdown classification can be reserved for serious emergencies — specifically when there’s an unidentified person in the building who might be an active shooter.

Under the former system, those instances represented roughly 15% of all lockdowns.

The U School on North 7th Street in Philadelphia Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Trainings for the next year 

The School District has just begun to officially roll out these new categories. In the next year, officials will train staff at every school in the district so they understand when to deploy them. It’s a part of SDP’s system-wide series of “tabletop meetings” — basically just roundtable discussions with school staff.

The School District has hosted tons of general tabletop meetings focused on emergency procedures — but never one dedicated specifically to school shootings.

“Basically, what it enables you to do is to take a real-life scenario and put it on the table,” Bethel said. “All entities are involved with the response, and they’re walked through the process.”

Hired in December, chief of school security Bethel used to be the deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department. In that role, he used to be the one calling the lockdowns — and he had a better-safe-than-sorry mentality.

“When we know they’re in harm’s way we’re prepared to move them into that heightened posture,” Bethel said. “But the hope is we’ll get better at it, and they won’t even feel the transition. We’ll minimize the trauma it’ll inflict on our young people. That’s the goal.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...