At least four times a year, each public school in Montgomery County has practiced an emergency drill to help prepare staff and students for the worst, from a tornado to an armed shooter.
While Montgomery County Public Schools has operated under its own mandate for at least ten years, the school system will face a new state requirement next school year that calls for six drills each year, according to Bob Hellmuth, director of school safety and security for the school system.
Following the revision of emergency plan guidelines for Maryland schools in April 2013, the Maryland State Board of Education amended state regulations later in the year in part to add a requirement that schools must conduct drills for evacuation, “shelter in place,” reverse evacuation, lockdown, severe weather and “drop, cover, and hold.”
The state expanded the types of drills local school districts and schools must perform to help them prepare for “a broader range of emergencies,” according to a May 21, 2013, letter from state Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery to members of the Maryland school board.
The change for Montgomery County next year, Hellmuth said, will have to do more with the number of drills rather than their content.
“There’s not anything too new to us,” he said.
County schools currently have the ability to pick from among three types of drills: shelter, lockdown and evacuation. These drills cover a variety of possible situations, including weather incidents, Hellmuth said.
Hellmuth said he could not remember how the school system decided to require four drills rather than more or less, but added he thought the number has allowed for a good amount of drill practice in the school system and has not been “overbearing.”
In a shelter drill, a school will practice locking the exterior doors and monitoring the entrances while teachers continue to teach classes. Lockdown drills involve securing a school’s interior doors, covering the windows and making classrooms look unoccupied. To practice evacuating, students exit the building to meet at a designated place on the campus.
For some drills, schools are handed a specific scenario they must react to, such as a bank robbery nearby involving a suspect last seen heading toward the school.
Schools also must conduct ten fire drills each year, a separate requirement, Hellmuth said.
Some county principals said the extra two required emergency drills will be helpful.
Scott Murphy, principal of Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, said he thinks four drills is an “appropriate” amount but that there’s always room for more practice.
“Given the uncertainties in today’s world, you can never be prepared enough,” Murphy said.
Following a drill, school staff will conduct a debriefing to evaluate their performance, he said.
“Drills are always a learning experience,” he said.
Cheryl Clark, principal of Lois P. Rockwell Elementary in Damascus, said the school conducts multiple drills each year to prepare for emergencies, including weather-related incidents.
Not long ago, Clark said, the school dealt with an actual tornado warning for the area.
“I was glad that we had practiced,” she said.
More practice, she said, will translate to students and staff being more apt to follow procedures.
“Anytime that you do a drill for safety reasons, when you’re talking about large numbers of kids in a building and large numbers of staff, I think the practice for safety precautions is not a bad thing — it’s helpful,” she said.
Clark added that the elementary school sees a new group of young students each year who could benefit from the practice.
Clark said she thinks the state-mandated drills won’t mark a significant change for county schools.
“It sounds like it is not that different from what we’re doing,” she said.
Jimmy Sweeney, principal at Rosemont Elementary School in Gaithersburg, said he thinks that six drills might be too much.
“Four is plenty,” he said. “Six actually seems excessive to me.”
Sweeney said he knows the intentions behind the state requirement are good, but thinks that students and staff know what to do under the current drill requirement.
Eric Wilson, principal of Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring, said that he thinks two more drills will help students and staff with mental and emotional preparedness, translating to less anxiety should an actual incident occur.
Wilson said each drill currently takes only about 15 to 20 minutes — with much of the time devoted to monitoring that the proper protocols are in place — but more drills will mean “a few more challenges.”
“It is going to be a challenge to try and fit them in and get them scheduled,” he said.
Susan Burkinshaw — health and safety committee co-chairwoman of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations — said more drills will help students, especially younger ones, be more familiar with the procedures they should follow in an emergency.
Some students might be absent when a school performs a drill, and another two drills each year could help prepare more people, she said.
“When you’re stressed and in a situation where there is a real emergency, you fall back on your training,” she said.