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Christchurch schools attempt to avoid panicking students during lockdown drills

Christchurch schools are grappling with ways to hold emergency lockdown drills that do not traumatise students.

The drills are effectively practice runs for armed attacks and involve students going to their classroom or nearest designated “safe room” and hiding silently until further instructions.

Of 12 Christchurch schools contacted this month, nine held regular lock down drills, while another school said it would run lockdown drills after advice from police to do so.

Drills commonly included closing and locking doors to classrooms, pulling down blinds, turning off lights and moving students away from windows and doors to the safest interior wall.

Burnside High School and Elmwood Normal Primary School both kept their drills short.

Burnside assistant principal Alan Robertson said the school kept its drills short to avoid distressing students.

“We don’t want to sort of alarm or panic students,” he said.

Isleworth School suspended its drills after Canterbury’s earthquakes as a consideration of their effect on students. It only re-introduced them last year.

A fourth school, which did not want to be named, said it avoided drills altogether because of their effect on students.

Parent concerned

Heaton Normal Intermediate School held a 20-minute lockdown drill four days after the Valentine’s Day earthquake.

One Heaton Normal student said another girl cried during the drill because “she was scared that it was, like, real”.

Another Heaton student said the drill felt much longer than 20 minutes and she was irritated at having to lie down for so long “completely squished next to other people”.

“We had to lie down and kind of just pretend to just, I guess, not be alive.”

That student’s mother, who asked not to be named to protect her child’s identity, was concerned about the lack of consultation with parents and questioned whether schools “knew what they were doing”.

“I wanted to know that they had done their research and that they were doing this on good authority,” she said.

Heaton principal Andrea Knight said she was not aware of any child being upset and had not received any complaints from parents.

The drill was conducted under the supervision of an Auckland-based security firm it contracted to supply the school’s Emergency Management Plan.

One of the company’s directors had a background in “special forces”.

“This is really an area that requires expertise,” Knight said.

Hillmorton High School principal Ann Brokenshire said police advised her the school should have lockdown procedures in place.

The school intended to advise students when its first lockdown drill would take place to avoid causing panic.

None of the schools spoken to by Stuff that already held drills contacted parents before they were held.

Guidelines needed

University of Canterbury Associate Professor Kathleen Liberty, who heads a study into child trauma, said parents should be notified before drills so they could talk to their children and, if necessary, keep them at home, as many children in Christchurch still showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress following the earthquakes.

“There are lots of things that are going on at schools that are not helping children’s mental health.”

Liberty said schools should be issued specific guidelines on lockdown drills, including whether they were necessary and, if so, when and for how long they should run.

Active-shooter drills were common at schools in the United States where there were 64 school shootings last year alone.

More than a dozen schools across New Zealand recently received hoax bomb threats, including at least one school in Christchurch.

Last September, Medbury School on Clyde Rd was locked down after a robbery at a nearby petrol station.

_By Donna Miles for The Press