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'I'm praying. I'm scared' | Parents question unannounced lockdown drill at Union County high school

Students didn’t know at the moment if the drill was real, or a practice run. This, in part, is by design.

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — Some parents and students in Union County are upset after an unannounced school lockdown at Sun Valley High School

On Wednesday, in conjunction with the Union County Sheriff's Office, Sun Valley High in Monroe was chosen to have a lockdown drill with local law enforcement. 

Students didn’t know at the moment if the drill was an actual situation or a practice run.

"A spontaneous lockdown is something that we're not going to give a forewarning of that lockdown," said Lt. James M. Maye, public information officer for UCSO.

The unannounced lockdown is commonplace in many school districts nationwide. 

"We're not going to tell everybody 'Hey, this is a drill, be prepared for it,' because quite frankly, what we've seen in the past is people don't take that as seriously," Maye said. 

Despite the intentions, a family shared a message with WCNC Charlotte that showed their student sending what they thought were final messages to their loved ones. 

"Something is going on at school, we are all hiding," said one message. 

Another talked about loud noises they heard during the lockdown drill. 

"I'm praying. I'm scared," said another message. 

There was never a real threat, but these lockdowns are supposed to prepare students for one. 

Please read regarding a lockdown drill at Sun Valley today. Union County Public Schools Sun Valley High School

Posted by Sun Valley High School on Wednesday, November 30, 2022

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"Our protocols and these drills are not meant to harm," Maye said. "They are meant to train and to be used as a barometer of the success of our training, and the protocols we have in place for our kids."

Schools try their best to anticipate and respond to emergencies with lockdown drills.  A 2021 study by Everytown Research and Policy says active shooter drills are implemented in more than 95% of schools across the country. 

The study challenged the benefit of the practice to keep kids safe in a true emergency.  It said, “While there is limited proof of the effectiveness of these drills, anecdotal evidence, including many online conversations, increasingly suggests that active shooter drills may be harmful to mental health.

The findings are supported by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA)

School safety experts say there is a way to do drills responsibly and that they can save lives. There are a number of other impromptu life-saving drills like tornado, fire, and evacuation drills students must go through as well. 

"Research and experience show that lockdowns work," Kenneth Trump, a National School Safety Expert said. "People with ill intentions, gunmen have a limited amount of time their adrenaline's pumping, they know that they have to do what they intended to do quickly." 

Locally and nationally schools in our area have been targets of prank calls threatening violence. These incidents typically lead to a lockdown and heavy law enforcement response.

Students impacted negatively by lockdown drills should be afforded resources according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

Those resources include communicating quickly with parents, neighboring schools, and the media with as much factual detail as possible and appropriate, providing primary caregivers with guidance on how to talk with their children about their concerns or fears related to violence at school or in the community. 

Union County Schools said any students impacted by the drill should contact school counselors or psychologists. The district recently invested more than $180,000 into more mental health resources for high school students. 

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NASP says after lockdowns schools should recognize trauma reactions and offer mental health crisis intervention assistance, providing an opportunity for students and staff members to share their reactions to the lockdown.

There are times when threats are real and students need to know how to survive. 

Preparing your child for a lockdown starts before they happen. 

"We need to know who are more vulnerable populations are that when these things roll up we are creating buffers to help prepare these students and have conversations with them," Tyler Keith, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Thriveworks said.

The work to help them continues after. 

"When we don't talk about it, we're not protecting them," Keith said. "In fact, we're robbing them of the chance to actually learn how to handle the feelings."

School safety drills are required by North Carolina law

"Parents or students that are upset about a spontaneous drill -- I would just encourage them to stop, take a breath and realize that we're not here to cause any undue harm or anguish for their student, or for that family," Maye said.

The students’ text messages we shared eventually told their families it was a drill. Maye encourages families or students who want to learn more about the process should reach out to the sheriff's department. 

"Is there a few things we can tweak and work on to make it better? Absolutely. But when you're talking about that many people in one building, there's always going to be something that can be changed, but it lets us know exactly where we need to focus," Maye said. 

Contact Shamarria Morrison at smorrison@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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