“Attention everyone, we’re under lockdown at this time.”
When office personnel at Franklin Elementary School said those words, a muffled flurry of activity could be heard for about 15 seconds, and then all was quiet.
Walking down the central hall, it was as if the school was completely empty. Lights in the classrooms were off, doors were closed and a pin could be heard if dropped.
Which is exactly the way both central office staff and local law enforcement want it.
Friday’s exercise at both Franklin and Flat Rock elementary schools was part of a program unique to the Surry County school district, according to Sheriff Graham Atkinson, who conducted the drills with seven deputies from his office.
“These surprise lockdowns are something that, as far as I know, are conducted only in Surry County,” he said.
It is a program that began with a conversation between the sheriff’s office and Superintendent Dr. Ashley Hinson.
“This is really unique in Surry County to have both law enforcement and school system personnel working together as well as we do,” he said.
The drills are a surprise to everyone, including the principals of the schools being tested on their lockdown procedure, he said.
Dr. Terri Mosley, assistant superintendent of the county school system, was on hand for Friday’s drills and said that while she hopes to never have to go into lockdown for a crisis, preparation is key in the event such a crisis occurs.
“We practice lockdown drills every year, because it’s important that both the teachers and students know how to react in the event that it becomes necessary,” she said. “While we hope that these are always practice drills, we always want to be prepared.
“The safety of our students is our number one priority.”
Atkinson said the surprise drills came about as a change in thinking following the Columbine school shootings in Colorado in April of 1999.
“After Columbine, we came up with this system because we had to re-think how we were doing things,” Atkinson said.
“We had been training in state-required active shooter training, but felt we needed to train our school personnel as well,” he said. “A couple of years ago, we did planned lockdown drills, but we discussed the idea with the superintendent and our school principals, and decided to take it to the next level and conduct surprise drills to ensure that we’re able to do it in a crisis without advance notice.”
And it seems to be working.
Just seconds after announcing the lockdown, green cards began appearing from under doors in the hallway.
The idea, Atkinson said, is that if the lockdown were real, green cards would indicate a room occupied but without any problems, while red cards would mean a problem was in the room, alerting law enforcement of where they needed to focus their attention.
Just moments after the lockdown was announced, teams of law enforcement entered every room to check on both the procedure and occupants.
“We’re looking for the cards outside the door and in the outside windows,” Atkinson said. “We want to make sure that the kids are where they need to be. The rooms are supposed to appear unoccupied. This is a very serious exercise.”
Mosley said the program has worked so far.
“Lockdowns occur in the event of an emergency you don’t expect, so these drills are crucial to our being prepared,” she said.
According to both the assistant superintendent and the sheriff, the practice is working.
Walking through the empty halls at Flat Rock Elementary School while it was still under lockdown, Atkinson smiled.
“They did a great job,” he said. “Almost perfect. With the exception of a couple of minor details, things are working great.”
Atkinson said that after all schools have been drilled on lockdown procedure, his office will sit down with school personnel and review how well the schools performed.
But he said no major changes are in the works.
“We may have to tweak a thing or two here and there, but the procedure is working and we’re keeping the kids safe,” he said.
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.