In the days after Nikolas Cruz walked into his former high school in Parkland, Florida, pulled a fire alarm and opened fire, Norris High School teacher Mary Schlieder stood in her classroom and took stock — then cleared out a closet.
She figured she could squeeze two, maybe three of her students in there if the unthinkable happened, but she wondered as she did this, if she was overreacting to the news of yet another deadly school shooting.
So she asked a group of teachers that day: Am I being irrational?
The answer from her coworkers was a resounding no, a waterfall of “I do the same things.”
One teacher said she tried to identify the strongest boys in her class who could quickly barricade the door. Another worried about a window in the classroom, another about remembering to tell her kids to silence their cellphones.
“I think every teacher is thinking this way,” she said last week. “This isn’t new. This is something we’ve been thinking about for a long, long, long, long time.”
For a while now, Lincoln Southeast High School English teacher Paul Smith has kept a small sledgehammer in his closet, because the latest renovation meant the windows in his room no longer open. If worse came to worst, he figures, he could smash out a window and help his kids escape, though it’s two stories up. He’s still looking for something kids could use to lower themselves to the ground.
“Sometimes you have to save yourself,” he said. “I’ve told the kids if it comes to that and we’re in a situation, no one is going to die on my shift.”
Tim Royers, who teaches history and government at Millard West High School, has not only thought about such things, he’s done them.
In 2011, when a Millard South High School student shot two administrators, the initial information indicated the shooter was heading west. Royers pushed file cabinets against the door to protect his students.
Those are things he still debates to himself, though, wondering if in a few split seconds it would be safer to barricade the doors or if that would make too much noise, since the idea in a lockdown is to be quiet and out of sight.
Since then, a bond issue paid for school renovations, cameras and other security upgrades in Millard schools. Their classroom doors lock now; the entrances are restricted.
Teachers don't want to be armed
Several teachers interviewed said they appreciate their districts' security measures, despite wondering how they'd react in the classroom itself — and they don’t see arming teachers as a solution.
Maddie Fennel, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said teachers already have too many responsibilities and don’t need to be a security guard, too. There are liability issues that would certainly raise insurance costs, the chance for accidents or other mishaps. And arming teachers would hinder one of the most important jobs of an educator — to develop strong relationships with kids, she said.
“It’s not a good idea,” Fennel said. “When you look at other countries that want to end violence, they lower the access to guns, they don’t put more guns in school.”
President Donald Trump fueled the debate in the wake of the Florida shooting, saying trained, armed teachers would be a deterrent and suggesting they receive bonuses for the added responsibility.
At least 10 states have laws allowing staff to have access to firearms on school grounds, according to the Education Commission of the States, and news stories have highlighted schools in states such as Texas, Colorado and Ohio — especially those in rural areas — that allow teachers access to guns.
Nebraska law allows only on-duty, uniformed law enforcement officers to carry firearms on school property, though state Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings has said he plans to introduce a bill next session to allow specially trained teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons.
But both nationally — and in Nebraska — many educators oppose the idea.
Royers, who was named 2016 Nebraska Teacher of the Year, shared his feelings on Twitter: “I’m not going to mince words here — if we arm teachers I’m done. I love my job. I love what I get to wake up and do every single day. But that is not what I signed up for. That’s not the culture I want to be a part of. I will walk away if that is ever a reality.”
Royers said he decided to say publicly what he’d heard so many teachers say.
“To me it doesn’t imply more safety, it implies danger is an inevitability,” he said.
State wants schools to be ready
The focus in Nebraska has been on other precautions, spearheaded since 2015 by state security director Jolene Palmer.
Palmer’s position with the Nebraska Department of Education was created by state law in 2014. She’s required to conduct security assessments on all schools by Aug. 31, 2019. So far, Palmer said, about 500 of the 1,130 public schools in the state have submitted self-assessments — a first step — and the state has conducted about 370 assessments.
Palmer said her recommendations for schools include best practices gleaned from experts and lessons from school shootings. Those recommendations include:
* Locking all external and internal doors. When Adam Lanza gunned down 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School — 20 of them 6- and 7-year-olds — he passed by two locked classroom doors before finding one open, Palmer said. Few have been seriously injured or killed behind locked classroom doors, she added.
* Putting staff members at entry points when students come in and out, and at other times.
* Following a standard response protocol developed by the Colorado-based I Love You Guys Foundation. It uses common, simple language to alert and direct school staff and students in an emergency. Palmer chose it, she said, because all the material is offered for free and because the largest number of Nebraska districts — including Lincoln Public Schools and Omaha metro schools — already were using it. She wants those protocols to be the same across the state, so a student who moves from one district to another will know what to do in an emergency. State officials recommend two lockout and lockdown drills each year.
* Develop threat assessment procedures to help identify potential problems — and get kids help early. The state has offered voluntary threat assessment training sessions, and so far 85 districts have participated.
Identifying problems early is key
The best way to protect students, she said, is to prevent the shootings by identifying potential problems early on, and, by extension focusing on building relationships and helping students who might feel isolated.
“That’s really a mindset we need to work on, to include everybody, make sure they feel wanted,” she said. “I would tell you the relationship piece is the most important, but it’s not tangible. It’s harder to describe, measure.”
At a packed school board meeting in Lincoln last week, the focus of concerned parents was more on the crisis response.
The protocols used in a lockdown by LPS — and recommended by the state — require staff to lock classroom doors, turn off the lights, get out of sight and remain quiet. Some parents question whether a “run, hide, fight” protocol would be better.
The I Love You Guys Foundation emergency response protocols, created by John-Michael and Ellen Keyes after their daughter Emily was killed by a gunman who took six students hostage at Platte Canyon High School in 2006, are used by about 25,000 schools, agencies and organizations across the nation.
Palmer said they’re based on law enforcement response and follow the idea that “intel should drive our actions.” That means getting behind locked doors and out of sight until more information is known about the situation and whether other action is warranted.
“You need to have all the information you can before you take action,” she said.
She said training also includes talking with teachers about evading or defending themselves and their students if that’s possible, though specific training is left to individual districts. She thinks having a baseball bat in the closet, or wasp spray by the door is OK, but stressed that every situation, and every school is different.
“We’re trying to empower teachers to make the best decisions,” she said. “We want teachers to have a great understanding about how to do that.”
Protocols can save lives
LPS Director of Security Joe Wright said if teachers or students know where a threat is and there’s a quick way to get out, they should.
One day the principal at Lincoln Southwest High School came into the building with a sign saying “I’m a threat” and asked students at lunch — in an open commons area with no place to take cover — what they should do. The answer: Run out the doors in the opposite direction.
Often, though, those in the school don’t know where the threat is, which means they need to get behind locked doors and out of sight, Wright said.
Richard Myles, who has been superintendent of Scottsbluff Public Schools for eight years, came from Colorado, where he got way too much experience with school shootings.
He was a middle school principal in Jefferson County Public Schools when two students walked into Columbine High School in 1999 and killed 12 students and a teacher. Myles' son survived the shooting in the high school.
Myles was active in implementing many of the school security procedures now recommended by the state — including the I Love You Guys response protocols — in Scottsbluff and area schools. He worked with Scottsbluff police, and a SWAT team from Colorado provided training. The schools do quarterly lockdown drills using different scenarios, he said.
Several teachers and administrators said that’s one thing the Florida shooting illustrated: they need to practice situations where not all kids are in class, such as lunch or moving between classes.
Rural schools — because they’re more isolated, with longer law enforcement response times — have some different protocols, Myles said. He's not a proponent of arming teachers, even in remote locations, preferring schools employ armed and trained security guards or police because of the amount of training required.
After he’d left the Jefferson County middle school, a shooter came there, too, but was tackled by a math teacher after wounding two students. Both recovered. That math teacher, he said, was at the front door as students were leaving because of security changes they’d made that included making sure the doors were supervised at all times.
“There were a number of times, sadly throughout my career, these tragedies occurred and you realize they can happen anytime,” he said. “The only good news as school leaders and law enforcement personnel is we’ve developed a whole lot of strategies and protocols that have saved lives.”
Several teachers said there's a balancing act between making sure students are prepared and maintaining a positive, not fearful, atmosphere.
At Southwest High School, journalism teacher Brandi Benson said she's got great faith in her administration and the plans it has in place to keep kids safe — and she expects her students to take drills seriously.
She's also well aware that there are shelves full of heavy yearbooks that could, she's thought, be used to defend her students if the unthinkable happened in her classroom.