Philadelphia schools change ‘lockdown’ language to reduce confusion amid emergencies

The new language is meant to help staff and students more clearly understand the type of situation they’re facing.

Julia De Burgos Elementary on Lehigh Avevnue

Julia De Burgos Elementary on Lehigh Avevnue

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
ashaprihar-headshot

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.


The language used to describe lockdowns in Philly public schools has been updated in hopes the new terminology will reduce confusion for school staff responding to emergencies.

Unlike the recent tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, most school shooting situations in Philadelphia happen outside the building. But children are at risk: 83 people under 18 have been shot in the city this year, according to the Office of the Controller, and 15 of those children have died. All but two were Black or Hispanic.

The School District of Philadelphia didn’t make any safety changes in direct response to what happened in Texas, spokesperson Christina Clark said.

However, she noted that the “lock-in,” “lock-out,” and “lockdown” response classifications used by Philly public schools had been renamed at the start of the 2021-2022 school year. They’re now called “hold,” “secure,” and “lockdown,” respectively.

“The transition from using Lock-In and Lock-Out was due to the word ‘Lock’ and sometimes staff would only hear that word and not be able to differentiate between the type of lockdown that was being called,” Clark told Billy Penn.

Reasons for securing school entry points — or locking down — vary widely, from a medical emergency, to gunfire in the surrounding neighborhood, to an armed intruder entering the building.

Philly schools formed the three separate categories to limit the use of the word “lockdown” to situations only where an unknown person entered the building. The goal is to lessen interruptions to learning, as well as the trauma that goes along with frequent lockdown announcements.

Before the three classifications were created back in 2020, students would have to hide in classroom corners with doors locked and lights off regardless of what kind of incident required a school to secure its entrances.

A 2019 Billy Penn analysis of a decade of recorded school lockdowns showed the plurality were prompted by a shooting or gunshots in the neighborhood.

That dynamic also fed into the language change. “Due to schools being impacted by community incidents,” spokesperson Clark said, the district adjusted the terminology to “better communicate to school staff how the school should respond to various types of lockdown incidents.”

During a “hold” — which is prompted by an emergency “in or around the building,” like a medical emergency or fight between students — students stay in the building and classes can continue, Clark said, but no one can enter or leave the building aside from emergency responders.

The same is true during a “secure,” which is called when there’s some kind of danger in the surrounding community, like a bomb threat or police looking for a criminal suspect.

When a “lockdown” is put in place, that means there’s some kind of direct threat to the school, like an armed intruder or active shooter. During a lockdown, a school locks all exterior entrances and no one but law enforcement or emergency personnel can come into the building, Clark said.

Desks, chairs, shelves, cabinets, and other furniture are used to barricade entrances, and students are told to go to “an area of the room, unobservable from outside and potential lines of fire,” she said. The school then has to wait for an “all clear” from the Philadelphia Police Department.

Mornings are for coffee and local news

Billy Penn’s free morning newsletter gives you a daily roundup of the top Philly stories you need to start your day.

You finished another Billy Penn article — keep it up!

We hope you found it useful, fun, or maybe even both. If you want more stories like this, will you join us as a member today?

Nice to see you (instead of a paywall)

Billy Penn’s mission is to provide free, quality information to Philadelphians through our articles and daily newsletter. If you believe local journalism is key to a healthy community, join us!

Your donation brought this story to life

Billy Penn only exists because of supporters like you. If you find our work valuable, consider making a sustaining donation today.

Being informed looks good on you

Thanks for reading another article, made possible by members like you. Want to share BP with a friend?