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What is a School Lock Down?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A school lock down is a procedure that is initiated when school officials believe that there is a credible threat to student and staff safety. Lock downs are classically used to protect students from school shooters, bomb threats, and other forms of violence, but they can also be used when police are engaged in an operation nearby, or when a national disaster has been declared. The goal is to keep students and staff safe, and while it may be frightening or disruptive, it is important for everyone to comply with the lock down for safety reasons.

When a lock down is ordered, people are told to stay inside their classrooms and lock the doors. This is designed to prevent anyone from entering the rooms from hallways and corridors. Windows will also be shut, locked, and covered with blinds to obscure visibility, and people are often encouraged to stay away from doors and windows, sheltering in an area where they cannot be seen.

The school itself will also be locked to prevent people from entering or exiting the building until the lock down has been lifted. In the case of precautionary ones, such as those that are initiated while police attempt to round up a suspect or serve a warrant, the lock down will be cleared as soon as the threat is over. In cases like bomb threats, police officers need to clear the school. A lock down may also be changed to an evacuation order if school officials feel that students and staff would be safer outside, or in the wake of a national disaster, once transport has been organized for the students and staff.

Lock down announcements are commonly made over public address systems, and in schools where the classrooms have phones, the phones will ring to alert teachers to a lock down. Some schools also send text messages to students and parents to alert them to the action, so that students who are not on-site know that it is not safe to return to school. This type of alert is very common on college campuses, letting students know that they should stay where they are rather than moving around on campus.

People are usually instructed to avoid using cell phones during a school lock down so that they do not clog the phone network. They are also usually ordered to remain as quiet as possible and to avoid engaging with anyone who is unknown, with the exception of clearly identified police, firefighters, and other emergency personnel. While the situation may distress parents, they should stay away from the school until the lock down has been lifted so that they do not interfere with emergency responders or police operations.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon1001769 — On Jun 23, 2019

School lock downs are scary I mean, why do people put kids and teens in danger?

By creek023 — On Dec 17, 2013

I would like to start by saying good work to the writer. You covered a lock down quite well. "But" -- there always is a "But" A lock down is not to confine the intruder in; it is actually the opposite. The propose of the lock down is to alert all those in the building that there is an immediate threat and to clear the hallways and lock their doors as quickly as possible. I do not agree with the old school mentality of lock the door and hide in a corner. I am a firm believer in lock the door, barricade, arm yourself, and if at all possible get out and run like there is a gunman on your tail. Also to touch on a few comments about "it is not to keep the students safe," I am sorry but I have to correct you. It is all about the safety of others. We in the emergency response field take an oath to lay our lives on the line so others may live. Now I know some responders don't hold the same oath, but they are only a small few among millions.

There is a huge question as to when to use a lock down and when to use a hold and secure as well as duck and cover. A lock down is normally used when the threat is in the building and the situation is escalating. In this instance, the school will call over the PA and there is a lock down and it is not a drill. At that time, all persons in the building will go to the nearest safe room e.g., classroom, office, or any other lockable room. They are never to go to a gym or bathroom. These are not always lockable and a gym is a huge, open space with nowhere to hide. If you can barricade the door, do so, If you can safely evacuate the building, do so, If you can get out, grab whatever you can to throw at the threat. I am a big fan of grab the fire extinguisher and if you can stand close to the door, safely pull the pin and point the hose at about head level and if that door is being opened, let it fly. And after it's empty, it still is heavy and hard, so don't be shy and let it fly.

A hold and secure is normally used when there is a threat outside of the school, such as someone being chased by the police or if there is a possible sex offender in the area. The hold and secure is to limit the access into the school by locking all the exterior doors and having outside activities stopped and all the students brought inside. Classes can resume, there is just no activity outside until the authorities give the all clear. I feel it would be best to have two or (limited to available staff) more people work in a two person team/s and roam the school halls and check each class until the all clear is given. There again, we are not trying to limit or harm or in trap anyone.

Duck and cover is for bad weather. It covers tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, forest fires, severe lighting storms and other severe weather that is immediately threatening the area. It is very similar to a hold and secure. The difference is during duck and cover, if there is severe weather in your area the school will act accordingly to the weather approaching.

By anon310858 — On Dec 27, 2012

Other institutions besides schools go on lock down during certain emergencies, like hospitals and prisons, but few people complain about that practice. If a criminal enters a hospital to finish off a victim in his room, for instance, the rest of the hospital needs to be aware of the intrusion. If the policy during a lock down is that nobody enters and nobody leaves, then the criminal has fewer opportunities to escape.

I'm not always convinced a lock down in a public school is the safest course of action, but it does beat allowing the shooters to run out of the building and keep going into the surrounding neighborhood. The students may not be any safer than they were before, but at least the police will have enough time to surround the exits and work their way inside the building. I can understand why parents might get upset when denied access to their children, but a lock down also limits the number of people who might become hostages or victims.

By anon309031 — On Dec 14, 2012

A lockdown is not safe. Lockdowns are dangerous to the lives of students. The purpose of a lockdown is to protect members of law enforcement and has nothing to do with protecting students, but more of preventing suspects from evading capture. Students; lives are the last concern for law enforcement.

Students locked in a classroom are more likely to be shot than those who flee.

By anon305261 — On Nov 25, 2012

My daughter's school had a practice lockdown recently, and the school did not notify the parents. One of my daughter's friends was getting dismissed and her mother came to pick her up since she had not been notified of the lockdown and the doors were locked and nobody answered the phone, so this girl's mother was very concerned. She texted her daughter who informed her that they were in a lockdown and that she was not allowed to use her cell phone, but she had it on her anyway, which was good. Is it legal to not notify the parents?

By anon257435 — On Mar 26, 2012

I still don't get it. If it is a person running from the police and not in the school, why don't they run to the front gate or door, close it and lock it before they get in then go under the table if they get in?

By anon252962 — On Mar 07, 2012

Sounds like a police state to me.

By anon243320 — On Jan 27, 2012

@TunaLine: This has nothing to do with bullying. Yes, lockdowns make for safe schools. Since lockdowns are not about bullying and are about terrorists, school shootings and other extreme violence, there is no point in bringing up bullying here. If it's an issue, the principal, counselors, teachers, etc. should be addressed.

By anon115272 — On Oct 01, 2010

Recently law enforcement reportedly requested a lock down of a local school due to a potentially threatening note found on the floor of the school.

It was the end of the day and it would more than likely be safer for the children to be split up rather than be together. The school refused to lock down and was criticized by some. I question the motives of law enforcement. I suspect they wished to use the lock down as a investigative tool and essentially hold the students captive until the guilty parties were found.

By TunaLine — On Sep 01, 2010

How effective are lock downs at preventing school violence? I mean, if you look at school bullying statistics, they just seem to keep going up and up.

Do lock downs really make for safe schools?

By lightning88 — On Sep 01, 2010

@anon86542 -- That's pretty crazy -- I've never heard of locking down a school just because of a thunderstorm warning. I'm not sure as to the legality issue, but that does sound like an over reaction.

Perhaps you could ask to speak it the school's safety officer or the principal in order to get a better idea about their thought process. Best of luck.

By EarlyForest — On Sep 01, 2010

Although lockdowns are not fun for anyone, they really are a big part of school safety and security.

Like anything, the key is to use them in moderation.

Of course, a lockdown is only one way of preventing violence, and school officials shouldn't turn to that as their first option.

By anon86542 — On May 25, 2010

My son's school was locked down for a thunderstorm warning. In fact, they wouldn't let me leave. Is this legal? They would not let me see him as well.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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