The new normal: The threat of violence weighs heavy on the minds of school and safety officials


“Shooter kills 27, 20 of them students, in Newtown.”

“Death toll in Virginia Tech shooting rises to 32.”

“Two boys shot at central Minnesota high school.”

“Our hearts are broken today.”

The utmost priority of a school is the safety of its students.

Due to recent events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., school safety and gun violence have been front and center in the public consciousness. It’s not the first time, either.

From mass media to local blogs to the Capitol rotunda, events like the Sandy Hook tragedy, the 1999 Columbine massacre, and local shootings at Rocori High School in Cold Spring and Red Lake Senior High School in Red Lake, have left an indelible mark on our collective psyche. In their aftermath, students across the nation have been forced to pose the question, “Could it happen to me?”

As simulated school shooting drills and charts detailing “Code Red” lockdown protocols are implemented throughout districts, educational institutions have to balance this new reality while still delivering quality education. In Minnesota, simulated shooting drills and security protocols aimed at preparing for an “active shooter” are required at least five times a year.

But what does it mean to truly protect a school? And what are the psychological effects for a student population that’s growing increasingly aware of large-scale school violence?

Is it simply part of a “new normal” that encompasses, and may come to define, teenage life in the 21st century?

With such an emotionally-charged issue, officials like Jason Matlock, director of emergency management, safety and security at Minneapolis Public Schools, think it’s important to take stock of the situation realistically, rather than reactively. His goal is to critically assess each potential hazard and try to come up with a lasting solution.

“If there is a large scale incident, we will respond and support directly,” Matlock said. “For the most part, we try to do as much consultation and training. What happened a lot after Columbine and Virginia Tech was people thinking about response. ‘How do we respond?’ Drills. And getting ready. Well, you never can be 100 percent ready.”

The big debate

Matlock wears “one hat” at Minneapolis Public Schools.

His role with the district of more than 36,000 students is to make sure that they’re safe — not exactly an easy directive. Matlock’s job is to evaluate safety practices and ensure the best support is available at schools while working with the Minneapolis Police Department to establish safety policies and protocols.

Before his job with the school district, Matlock (right) served as a police officer. He hopes his wealth of knowledge has helped open the lines of communication between law enforcement and school officials.

“Teachers and police officers speak two different languages. Sometimes there wasn’t good crossover, but I think that crossover has gotten better,” Matlock said. “I think we’re getting better at getting together on one of the best protocols to fit in a school. Our bottom line is a safe and welcoming school environment.”

Police presence, at least in the form of liaison officers, has long been a staple of school security. But the national debate about adequate safety measures has shifted sharply post-Sandy Hook.

Gun violence and gun control is one of the most widely debated topics in the nation. The National Rifle Association (NRA) believes in the sanctity of the Second Amendment, or the right to bear arms, putting them on one end of the debate as they work diligently to paint any gun restriction as a violation of constitutional rights.

On the other side, anti-gun advocates believe that immediate action should be taken to limit criminals attempting to purchase guns — tougher background checks, for example, were part of President Obama’s recently defeated bill — as well as focusing on mental health programs to address those who could resort to violence.

As it extends to schools, having armed officers or — as was done recently in Jordan, Minn. — the police chief move his office inside the high school, creates a new conversation about what’s best for students. Whether it’s everyday violence or an incident as serious as a wide-scale shooting, Matlock said “an officer should still go in (to a school) prepared to deal with violence. However, being a nonthreatening role model to the students is the priority.”

Though they might be on the frontlines to prevent school violence, police presence isn’t the only precaution used in the public school system, Matlock said. Schools have also been focusing on drills and organized protocols, hoping that simulations — much like a fire or tornado drill, or even dating back to the Cold War era, nuclear “duck and cover” exercises — ensure students and educators respond effectively to emergencies.

However, the correct course of action in an inherently chaotic and frightening situation is both tenuous and debatable. The polarizing nature of gun control, along with the need to properly identify and treat students suffering from mental illness, has led to serious questions about how communities choose to provide meaningful, long-term solutions to the threat of school violence.

By going through protocols and running lockdown drills, there’s a concern that what’s meant to be taken seriously by students will — or already has — become as commonplace psychologically as a fire drill, Matlock said.

“Even though (our schools) have never had a fatality from a fire because sprinklers do their jobs … they still have fire drills,” he said. “Do I wish (lockdowns and shooting protocols) weren’t necessary? Of course I do. If you do it enough, if you practice it enough, you do it without thinking.”

Staying safe

Further complicating safety issues is that each school building and neighboring community is unique — which means they’ll have similarly unique approaches about how to protect their students.

Some buildings are older, or have structural and geographical differences that make a single, district-wide protocol less effective in certain schools and more effective in others. Also, it can simply boil down to a district’s budget. Implementing lockdowns and providing regular drills is feasible for a large district like Minneapolis. But for smaller, rural areas where the prospect of violence feels less imminent, the need for direct action may not be as pressing or possible, Matlock said.

“In rural areas, I’m sure there are fights. Maybe they’re just better at keeping them to a minimum due to the lesser amount of kids — unlike urban areas which pull students from a wide area with a lot of diversity. It goes up by percentage. The more kids, the more problems,” he said.

The protocol for Minneapolis schools revolves around “Code Yellow” and “Code Red” lockdown drills. With these drills, students are practicing steps that should be taken in the event of a school-wide emergency. The goal, administrator’s hope, is that the training makes a student’s reaction “feel immediate.”

“Code Red is for a more serious lockdown and Code Yellow is when we just heighten security levels,” said Elizabeth Rudrud (left), a school psychologist at South High School in Minneapolis. “What I’ve seen is that, through practicing, it helps us feel more in control of things, of our emotions. It has been a comforting exercise and students respond very well to the predictability and the structure.”

“When we drill, we say start small,” Matlock added. “Don’t go straight to an all-out simulated shooting drill.”

Matlock’s reasoning is that although simulated shooting drills are helpful for objectives such as the “live” training of police officers, for students, it can be a stressful, unorthodox way to prepare. Especially when it’s the first step taken.

Students should first learn to be calm, get used to thinking about the reality of added school protection, and prepare more for everyday violence like fights, thefts or bullying. Large-scale incidents are very rare, but they aren’t any less important to be prepared for, Rudrud said.

“It took us years to do one of those drills,” she said. “What I’m more worried about is domestic violence, very real stuff that happens day-to-day compared to an active shooter situation.”

“I would definitely go a lot slower. Less stress inducers,” Matlock said. “Cops do need to train, but with students and especially with budgets for it, the students don’t necessarily need to be dragged into it. Our job is to educate students, not use them as role players and train police off of them.”

Further concerns about simulated shooting drills center on organization and engagement. By running through exact motions to be taken in the event of a shooting, the question becomes whether these drills are “too organized.” In the event of a real shooting, not all students will remember which step-by-step process to follow. Instead, the top priority “should be getting away from immediate danger,” Matlock said.

“There are people saying we should teach kids to fight back, throw books and arm teachers. The focus is being able to keep a cool head. An active shooter is running on adrenaline. Everything is tunneled into tighter spaces. Shooters walk past people if they’re hiding and quiet. They aren’t scanning and looking for people,” Matlock said.

“The chances of going after people hiding (compared to) others running around and screaming … the possibility lessens. You don’t bring a book to a gunfight.”

Realistic solutions

No matter how students perceive or react to drills isn’t going to change the fact that they’re here to stay. But that doesn’t mean safety procedures exist on an island.

Schools need to surround their safety checks with psychological considerations, whether in the form of more one-on-one counseling or bringing experts on-site to help identify personal issues before they turn violent, said Kevin Filter, an associate professor of psychology at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

“The world changes, so people respond,” Filter said. “In a way, there is innocence lost.”

“Schools need to show that they can be ready for tragedies like a shooting without making people worry. Even creating more opportunity to help those with mental illness by making clinical psychiatrists more easily available would be a great preventative action.”

Programs that focus on relationship development would be a progressive leap forward in the fight against school violence, Rudrud said. Whether “interpersonal problem solving skills or emotional regulation skills,” extending solutions to students during the elementary years can “teach kids to be problem solvers, negotiators, leaders, and positive citizens.”

It’s also important to continue public discussions about violence in schools — which certainly was the case in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.

In February, President Obama led a roundtable discussion with Minneapolis leaders to identify systemic issues and learn about the city’s youth violence prevention initiative, “which is now a national model,” said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

After the roundtable, the mayor identified three areas he planned to focus on in order to curb gun violence: Having universal background checks, putting a limit on weapons that allow people to fire multiple rounds quickly in crowds, and attacking the culture of violence “that involves people pulling triggers.”

“I said to the President that … I never saw the look on his face when he came out of the meeting with the victims of Sandy Hook,” said Rybak, his eyes welling up. “And I know that look. I’ve felt that. And I told him that people in our position have seen too much death to let this be the status quo. I’ve been to so many funerals, heard so many eulogies for so many wonderful people that I never got a chance to meet, and dealt with so many families who will never get something back, that I can’t possibly go into this (gun control) discussion accepting that we can only get a little bit of change.”

Are we safe?

After the incident at Sandy Hook, President Obama responded with a proposal that focused on four main points — closing background check loopholes, banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, making schools safer and increasing access to mental health services.

Regarding the first two, the NRA held firm that any form of gun control would be an infringement on personal freedoms. Its chef executive, Wayne LaPierre, memorably stated after Sandy Hook that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

If security protocols were to include that teachers carry guns — as some have proposed — from Matlock’s perspective, it would create another psychological layer for students to overcome.

“Does a kid want to walk into an environment like that? Does a kid want to bump into a teacher and feel a gun on their hip? No, that’s not welcoming,” Matlock said. “There would be a whole culture shift if things went that way, and I don’t think that’s a way anyone would want to go.”

What Matlock and Rudrud stress most is that students, despite chilling headlines, are safe at school.

“It’s hard to understand this, but at school statistically, we’re very safe. We’re safer than many, many other places,” Rudrud said. “You can be safe at school. Just because you hear about things happening in the news, (that) doesn’t mean anything is going to happen here.”

“I’m outraged by what happens in our schools and neighborhoods, but I’m also extremely hopeful right now. I really am,” Rybak added. “We’re finally having the conversation we need to have … and right now I feel very hopeful. I feel people are at the level of outrage where they won’t tolerate it anymore.”

What’s a lockdown?

A CODE YELLOW is implemented when a threat or potential threat is outside of the building. Lockdown steps involve:

  • Locking all exterior doors
  • Increasing security at the main entrance of a building; visitors are screened
  • Locking all interior doors; students and staff are admitted
  • Allowing classroom work to continue, students can pass from class to class
  • Clearing halls/directing students and staff to classrooms/workspaces by Site Emergency Team

Outside procedures include scanning the area and seeking the nearest shelter if access to the school is compromised.

A CODE RED is implemented when a threat is inside the building. Lockdown steps involve:

  • Locking all exterior doors; no access allowed into the building
  • Locking all interior doors
  • NO ONE is allowed access into or out of classrooms/workspaces

If it is safe to do so:

  • Clearing halls, directing students/staff to a secure location by the Site Emergency Team
  • Staying out of sight away from windows and doors
  • Staying silent, remaining calm and waiting for further direction

Outside procedures include staying outside, waiting for directions to relocate and seeking the nearest shelter if access to the building is compromised.

If everything is deemed safe, a CODE GREEN is implemented as an all clear, allowing for normal classroom work to resume.

Photos: Elizabeth Rudrud and Jason Matlock discuss the need for multi-faceted approaches to safety inside Minneapolis public schools. (Photos by staff)