VALDOSTA — Kerry Quinn studies tragic incidents at other schools as part of his efforts to keep Lowndes County students and faculty safe.
The school resource officer looks for lessons to be learned from school shootings. Lessons to avoid tragedy, lessons to save lives.
Sadly, from schools across the nation, he's had incident after incident after incident to teach him.
Having been in the schools for six years, Quinn said the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting was once the prime example for school resource officers.
Then the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in 2012, followed by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Santa Fe High School in 2018.
And so many others in between.
“Instead of thinking of this as another drill, it’s actually getting pounded into where if this happens, this is what needs to happen, which is what I’ve implemented since I’ve been here,” Quinn said, who is the lieutenant of Lowndes County schools SROs.
Each Lowndes campus is required to hold two lockdown drills a year. Quinn said the number hasn’t changed in his time as an SRO.
But everyone takes the drills more seriously now.
“You’re taking security more seriously than in years before,” Quinn said. “Instead of just going through the motions, you’re taking responsibility and you have a role.”
SunLight Project reporters in Valdosta, Thomasville, Milledgeville, Moultrie, Live Oak, Dalton and Tifton examined how schools are utilizing safety drills and the impact drills could have on the people performing them.
Drills by the Numbers
Valdosta City Schools also has two lockdown drills per school per year, according to school officials.
"We are mandated to conduct school emergency drills periodically and we all follow those mandates,” said Dr. Todd Cason, superintendent for Valdosta City Schools. “We also work closely with local law-enforcement agencies to ensure our procedures are current and effective for today's potential threats.”
In addition to lockdowns, both school systems have made other safety measures a priority — locked entrances, ID requirements for visitors and employees, more surveillance cameras, even receiving anti-bullying grants.
Security at both school systems includes limiting public discussions of safety measures.
"It is our responsibility to protect our schools,” said Wes Taylor, superintendent of Lowndes County Schools. “We certainly hope that our parents and community stakeholders understand the need for us to keep the particulars of the procedures within the administration and our safety officers.”
In most of the SunLight region, one to two lockdown drills per school per year are common, and there have been no increases.
Baldwin County school system has been lucky that all of its lockdown drills in the last five school years have been just that — a drill.
No actual lockdowns have occurred in five years, although during the 2017-18 term, three different students in three different school buildings brought firearms to school.
During one incident, the gun actually discharged inside the student’s backpack, but no one was injured. The situation was contained from there, so the school was not locked down.
On the other occasions, school administrators found the weapons.
“You always look at your emergency,” said Mark Ward, deputy superintendent for Baldwin County Schools. “At no time was anyone in immediate danger to where we had to stop visitors from coming in or stop people from leaving the building.”
Thomas County school system has one lockdown drill per school per year, though the district has never been required to keep records of drills.
Some lockdown drills were completed during school days, some during teacher workdays.
Thomas County Schools received one bomb threat during the 2013-14 school year and another during the 2014-15 school year.
Knives have been the only weapons reported on Thomas County Schools property since 2013. There have been no reports of firearms.
Most of the knives were pocket knives brought to school accidentally by students and self-reported, with 14 found in 2013-14, 14 in 2014-15, five in 2015-16, three in 2016-17 and six in 2017-18.
Thomasville City Schools only had numbers for the 2018-19 school year. Each school reported two lockdown drills except for Harper Elementary School, which had one lockdown drill since the start of school.
A weapon was reported on a Thomasville City Schools campus last school year but there have been no other threats to schools in the last couple of years.
Not keeping track of lockdown drills seems to be a common practice among school systems.
According to Colquitt County Schools Superintendent Doug Howell, schools have lockdown drills once every few months, but they don’t keep track of them.
“We don’t practice those that often,” Howell said. “To be honest, lockdown drills cause parents to go into a panic. We aren’t required to keep any records on lockdown drills but we do take them very seriously.”
Tift County school system has at least one lockdown drill per school per year.
The Real Thing
Until this school year, Dalton City Schools required two lockdown drills per school per year.
On Feb. 28, 2018, teacher Randal Davidson, the radio voice of the Dalton High School Catamounts, fired a pistol through a window in his classroom.
The incident initially caused a lockdown. Once law enforcement officers located Davidson, the campus was evacuated.
One student injured an ankle during the evacuation, and Dalton High School Principal Steve Bartoo said there was a real fear among students and staff of an active shooter on campus.
"Did everything go perfectly? No. But overall, our school, our teachers, our students did exactly what they were supposed to do," he said. "More importantly, I saw the teachers in our school, all the adults, step up and assure the students that they were there to protect them."
The school system requires three lockdowns drills per school per year.
The 2018 incident not only increased the number of lockdowns for Dalton schools, but it changed the way the school system practices lockdowns and active shooter drills, Bartoo said.
"We have changed some things based on what we learned on Feb. 28," he said. "We train at lunch now. The event on Feb. 28 happened during lunch, and one of the things we learned was that in the common spaces where the kids eat, when the lockdown was announced, the adults knew where the kids were supposed to go. But our kids didn't know where to go."
Bartoo said when he called for a lockdown on his radio, those who had radios and heard the call did what they were supposed to do. No one used the school public-address system.
"They are used to administrators doing that," he said. "So now, the way we drill is that the administrators don't put the school on lockdown, the front office staff does. They take turns during our drills putting the school on lockdown."
Davidson was alone in the classroom and surrendered to a school resource officer. He pleaded guilty in July 2018 to first-degree criminal damage to property and carrying a weapon within a school safety zone, both felonies, and to disrupting the operation of a public school, a misdemeanor; he was sentenced to two years in prison and eight years on probation, according to court records.
Whitfield County Schools also increased its lockdown drills to three, though a school spokesman said the increase is not related to the Dalton High incident but rather school safety in general.
The Suwannee County School District in Florida, the closest SunLight school district to the Parkland shooting in the same state, has increased its frequency of lockdown drills.
In the 2017-18 school year, the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) protocol was added to the list of drills in the district. It was mandatory to have one ALICE drill along with a typical lockdown drill.
The current school year took out lockdown drills, kept one ALICE protocol drill and added two active shooter drills to every school.
ALICE allows teachers and staff to decide what is best for them given the situation and make informed decisions depending on where the situation is on campus.
Teachers could have students evacuate or locked down depending on the situation.
Prior to the school district adding the ALICE program, it conducted active shooter or suspicious person drills, where the school was locked down but there wasn’t the option for evacuation.
All the schools in the district now have a school resource officer on campus full-time and they participate in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program following the deadly 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
The program allows school employees who are licensed to carry a concealed weapon to be armed as long as they meet other qualifications, too. Classroom teachers, without other school duties, cannot participate in the program. The sheriff's office trains teachers in the program.
It used to be schools would have a typical assortment of drills to schedule during the school year: fire, tornado and lockdowns.
A lockdown drill usually looks like this: all school doors are locked, including those to classrooms; faculty and students turn off classroom lights and stay out of sight from windows and doors.
Just like Suwannee County, more states have either made it mandatory or are planning to make it mandatory for schools to have active shooter drills, an iteration of a lockdown drill that sometimes runs as a simulation with a pretend gunman.
A little more than a week ago, Georgia passed newest legislation – Keeping Georgia’s Schools Safe Act proposed by Public Safety Committee Chairman John Albers (R-Alpharetta).
Garry McGiboney, Georgia Department of Education deputy superintendent for external affairs, said the newest legislation will require schools have at least one to two crisis response drills once or twice a year.
All of the schools in the SunLight Project area report they are already meeting this requirement.
Safety assessments, however, could become the new normal for Georgia public and private schools.
“The DOE and Georgia Emergency Management Agency works together in doing more safety assessments at schools upon request,” McGiboney said. “We go to schools to point out (security) weaknesses and ways to fix it.”
The legislation will require schools to have the first safety assessment before 2021 and then every four years.
When it comes time for a safety assessment, McGiboney said districts will be sent a thorough checklist so they know what the DOE and GEMA are looking for during site visits.
The checklist, which is available for viewing on the DOE’s website, lists more than 100 items. The list gets as specific as well-lit exterior night lighting and monitoring student/parent drop-off and pick-up stations.
“We put the checklist together with GEMA,” McGiboney said. “We send it to (the schools) before so it gives them some context. After we do the site assessment, within 30 to 60 days, we give them a report.”
Assessments, more than a mandatory increase in drills, is the main component of Senate Bill 15.
“We recognize that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix to threats to school safety, but we are taking the steps necessary to ensure that every school in Georgia is safe,” Albers said in a press-release statement. “We want students to feel safe in the classroom and for parents to feel reassured when they drop their children off at school. By planning ahead, conducting threat assessments and strengthening security procedures, Georgia’s students will be safer.”
Maybe it’s for the best schools don’t increase lockdown drills, said Jennifer Branscome, an associate professor at Valdosta State University.
Before becoming a professor in the psychology department at VSU, Branscome was a school psychologist for many years in Indiana.
She said she remembers having lockdown drills, though she’s sure they weren’t as frequent as they are now.
She mostly remembers plenty of weather drills. Those are easier for kids to understand, she said.
“They have a better sense of the actual harm and prevalence of those sorts of things happening,” Branscome said. “It doesn’t tend to cause them stress or anxiety. It’s a predictable occurrence that they have familiarity with. Weather is part of living.”
However, explaining lockdown drills, especially active shooter drills, to children is more challenging, she said.
Branscome said there isn't much data on whether or not these types of drills have a traumatic impact on students but she does believe it could cause stress or anxiety.
“This could create anxiety or stress or some kind of negative feelings for various reasons,” Branscome said. “It’s an unusual and unfamiliar situation, and it can create uncertainty.”
Branscome said people should be reminded a school shooting is an extremely unlikely event.
A Northeastern 2018 study found an average of 20-30 mass murders happen annually, with about one of those happening at a school.
“The realities at the K-12 landscape are that people are concerned,” Branscome said. “That translates into active shooter drills happening for an extremely unlikely event.”
If schools are going to do it, they need to have a conversation with the kids, she said.
The National Association of School Psychologists and National Association of School Resource Officers teamed up to update drill information in 2017.
When schools are performing lockdown drills, especially active shooter drills, developmental levels of the children should be taken into consideration.
“The social, emotional and physical differences contribute to how you shape your conversation,” Branscome said. “Understanding how they would think about what is going on is going to be important to targeting messages and giving them the information.”
For example, a person wouldn’t talk to a first grader the same way she would a high school senior.
There should be discussions before and after drills so students can ask questions. If students still seem stressed or anxious, a school should provide resources to help students feel more comfortable, she said.
This is especially important for students with disabilities.
“Students with disabilities are a subgroup of the overall population who are more at risk for anxiety and outcomes of events like that,” Branscome said. “Involving them in the discussion is going to be very important. As a group, they are more at risk to developing the social and emotional issues from this.”
Lacey Howard has been teaching with the Thomas County Schools system at Cross Creek Elementary School for seven years now.
There hasn’t been an increase in drills, the fourth-grade teacher said.
When a drill happens, she stays calm, thoroughly explains safety aspects and becomes prepared if she needs to drop everything to help a child in need.
"We have to set expectations and not exhibit signs of fear,” Howard said.
For Dalton High School, part of Dalton City Schools and the same campus where a teacher brought a gun to school just a year ago, safety conversations start on the first day of school.
Whether or not drills are increased, Dalton High teacher Amy Gleaton said keeping students calm and reducing stress is the priority during a lockdown drill.
"I remind my kids that during the school year, they are probably here with us more than they are at home," she said. "They are our kids. Even if they are not in our classroom, they are our kids, and we are here for them."
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Katelyn Umholtz, Gil Pound, Eve Copeland-Brechbiel, Patti Dozier, MarKeith Cromartie, Charles Oliver and Jessie R. Box. To contact the team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katelyn Umholtz is a reporter with the Valdosta Daily Times. She can be contacted at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256.