Lockdown means chaos in Marysville high school

MARYSVILLE — It was hours of chaos: Students burned a teddy bear at the back of a math classroom. Classmates taped others’ hands together. No one seemed interested in paying attention to their new teacher.

“The second the lockdown started, it was chaos,” said Tyler Salwierz, a Marysville-Pilchuck High School sophomore.

Last week, he was among 2,500 students who spent five hours locked down in Snohomish County’s largest high school after police surrounded a nearby home where a bank robbery suspect was hiding.

Teachers followed procedure, closing blinds, turning off lights and moving students to far corners of the room. Students had to stay put, except when security officers escorted individuals to the bathroom. Filling the time — almost an entire school day — was an unexpected challenge.

Some teachers continued with as many days lessons as they had prepared. Other classes were able to watch movies. Some students spent the time instant messaging friends stuck in other classes and parents.

School officials met Monday to discuss the scramble to fill time.

While district officials said the bedlam Salwierz watched in his classroom was an isolated case, they agree that there needs to be a better way to spend time safely during any future lockdowns.

The issue is something districts across the state are evaluating.

“Is there one perfect way to do this kind of stuff? No,” said Craig Apperson, director of the Washington State School Safety Center. “Every emergency has a different kind of logistics. If the incident takes several hours to resolve itself, there’s not much they can do about it.”

Nationwide, some schools are looking for ways in which more-typical school activity can resume during lockdowns, with campus security tightened and no one allowed to enter or leave.

School districts must work with local law enforcement, fire and emergency responders to determine the best scenario for each building, he said.

“This is really about people understanding each other’s perspectives and what they’re going to do,” Apperson said.

On Monday, Marysville officials talked about how the district office can help with communication during a lockdown.

The school’s staff also is looking into what can be done to help teachers in lockdown when they are going to be with the students for several hours, Miller said.

While elementary school teachers can follow their day-long lesson plans with their students, middle and high school teachers are used to revolving groups of students hearing a single lesson.

“Secondary teachers think in 55-minute increments,” Miller said. “The secondary level is truly a challenge. When you are alone in your classroom and it’s just you and your kids for five hours, that’s a huge challenge.”

The school’s first obligation is to look out for students’ safety and security, including turning out lights and moving students to a safe part of the room, Principal Tracy Suchan Toothaker said.

“We have had conversations about ‘Keep teaching, keep teaching,’ ” she said. “For high school populations, you can deal with that for so long. It’s building a teacher’s bag of tricks.

“It is a dilemma for us. I think it’s one every principal dreads.”

In Salwierz’s math class, “There was a brand new teacher in the room on her first day on the job,” said Gail Miller, assistant superintendent. “She didn’t know the kids … The students took full advantage of it.”

The school will investigate, including the burning of the teddy bear, a clear safety hazard. “They shouldn’t have a lighter in the school to begin with,” she said. Discipline could follow.

Part of the challenge is not knowing whether a lockdown will last a few minutes or several hours. In Wednesday’s lockdown, there were initial reports that two people were in a car the suspect drove off in. The possibility that a second suspect was still at large led to the decision to keep the high school in emergency lockdown.

“We would have been irresponsible to let the students roam around the campus” until it was confirmed there was only one suspect, Miller said.

Salwierz looks at it as a lost day.

“They have to have a better plan,” he said.

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