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Looking at Lockdowns

School district officials explain emergency protocol

On Sept. 17, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) faced an unprecedented safety situation when 10 San Diego high schools (including La Jolla High) received phoned-in threats of a suspicious device or shooter on campus. Each of the 10 campuses went to lockdown for the early part of that day.

Law enforcement officials searched each school and although nothing dangerous was discovered, an investigation into the calls is ongoing. The results will be reported as soon as they are available.

“What we experienced that day was unprecedented and highly unusual,” said Linda Zintz, SDUSD communications director. “We have never had 10 schools go on lockdown at the same time for that amount of time.”

During a lockdown, all school doors and windows are locked; all students and staff remain in their classrooms or offices; no one is permitted to leave and no one — including parents — is allowed on campus. Additional details about lockdown protocol could not be revealed for student safety reasons.

“It’s not unusual for schools to go on lockdown during an emergency or as a precaution due to police activity in the area,” she said. “It can happen fairly routinely, but these lockdowns last half an hour or less.” The lockdowns in the September incident went on for a few hours.

To inform parents of a lockdown, a robotic system using a recorded message calls those who’ve registered their phone numbers with the school, and an e-mail can also be sent. The system is also used to contact parents whose students have been absent for several days, or if there is a school event. In an emergency, both messages explain the nature of the situation, when the school is placed on lockdown, whether law enforcement is on campus, and typically, tells parents not to pick up their children. When the lockdown is lifted, parents are also notified.

During the 10-school lockdown situation, La Jolla High was placed on lockdown around 11:30 a.m. and it was lifted around 1 p.m. because the lockdown was lifted before the end of the school day, the district requested parents wait until the regular time to pick up their children. Should a lockdown remain until past the end of the school day, the district notifies parents of pickup procedures.

San Diego Unified School District uses social media, like Twitter, to post updates during an emergency. This screen grab shows the stream of updates during the 10-school lockdown Sept. 17.
San Diego Unified School District uses social media, like Twitter, to post updates during an emergency. This screen grab shows the stream of updates during the 10-school lockdown Sept. 17.

Additionally, the district relies on social media to post updates. “Our Twitter account is another great tool we use to get information out,” Zintz said. “communication and keeping people informed is key in these situations, so we have certainly taken advantage of social media technology and parents follow us (on our Twitter handle @sdschools).”

Although use of cell phones is discouraged during a school day, Zintz said the district “does not discourage or encourage” students texting their parents to let them know they are safe during a lockdown. “A lot of children have cell phones and text their parents, and both find it reassuring,” she said.

The greatest challenge is parents wanting to come to school to pick up their children, which is not allowed during a lockdown. “The reason children are locked in at school is because there is a sense their safety is in jeopardy,” Zintz said. “Parent present on campus could put them in harm’s way, too, and we want everyone to be safe. I know how hard it is not to come and try to get your children, but nothing will be accomplished by coming to the campus.”

La Jolla High School principal chuck Podhorsky said he is empathetic to parents’ worries and has experienced an emergency situation at his daughter’s elementary school. “It’s an anxious time for parents, but as administrators, our job is to keep every child safe. During the (Sept. 17) lockdown here, everyone did a great job.”

Thankfully, at La Jolla High School, parents adhered to school protocol. “We felt greatly supported,” Podhorsky continued. “The parent response was very respectful. Our PTA did a great job stepping up to make sure the classrooms had water and snacks. We are very fortunate to have great parents.”

Following the lockdown, Podhorsky said he held a meeting with parents to get their thoughts on how the situation was handled to see how they could improve their approach in the future.

Lockdown Protocol

■ Parents are asked to remain calm while school and local authorities manage the situation.

■ Parents cannot pick up their children during a lockdown nor come on campus. If it appears the lockdown will last for an extended period of time, or go beyond dismissal time, school staff will notify parents by phone or e-mail. Students will not be allowed to leave until recommended by the appropriate authorities.

■ Parents may be required to pick children up from school or another designated safe area, once it is determined safe to do so. Parents may be required to present identification.

■ The reunification location will be given to parents over the phone if possible, and will be publicized to the media. School officials will also work with the district’s transportation department regarding bus transport.

sandiegounified.org/emergency-lockdown-procedure