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Over the past few months, NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs have been looking into school campus safety.
In Arizona, one group of our high school students has been asked to play an important role in making sure everyone on campus knows what to do in an emergency. The NewsHour's April Brown worked with some of those students, for our latest American graduate report, part of a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Staff and students of South Mountain High School, we are in lockdown.
Those are words no school administrator wants to say.
Room 160 needs to be secured.
In the two years since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, schools around the country have been ramping up safety efforts, and experimenting with different approaches to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
One high school in Phoenix challenged students to help make their school safer.
During a reverse evacuation…
Administrators asked journalism students at South Mountain High School to create a video for their peers on what to do during emergency situations.
Principal LaCresha Williams made the request after a potentially dangerous incident caused a lockdown in the fall.
LACRESHA WILLIAMS, Principal, South Mountain High School:
They are at lunch at this time. They are eating, having fun. So we literally pushed the kids into buildings. They are walking fast. They are not running, because they don't know that — the seriousness of it, that there is an alleged person who has a weapon on campus with a backpack.
The response to that incident wasn't as smooth as school officials had hoped.
BRION MACNEIL, Security Lead, South Mountain High School:
It goes back to an old sports cliche, which is you play like you practice.
Head of security Brion MacNeil says regular drills are important.
The whole purpose of a lockdown is to minimize casualties. We know that sometimes, depending on the situation, we're not going to be 100 percent. But we try to get everybody inside and secured as fast as we can.
Senior Jose Contreras, the lead producer of the student video, says it's been clear for some time that students need more information.
JOSE CONTRERAS, Student, South Mountain High School:
Some classrooms locked their doors before all of the students were in, so some students were freaking out that they couldn't get in. And they created a lot of chaos and a lot of fear even to some students.
Many students were unaware that teachers are supposed to lock classroom doors immediately in many emergency situations, as Anne Montgomery did during the drill we were allowed to film. And after that?
ANNE MONTGOMERY, Teacher, South Mountain High School:
It's very important that we be quiet, that we go in our little room over there and close the door and make the room look like it's empty, and that they bring all their backpacks and belongings, so if someone did make it into the main room, they would think this place was empty.
At South Mountain, teachers like Montgomery have written instructions detailing how to respond to various emergencies.
This year, they also watched a new training video developed with guidance from first-responders, educators, mental health professionals and law enforcement.
Recent events remind us that active-shooter incidents can occur anywhere in our community.
IRENE DIAZ, Supervisor for Student Discipline, Safety & Security, Phoenix Union High School District: When I first watched the video, I cried. It's really hard to deal with that children can be put in that kind of situation.
Irene Diaz is the Phoenix Union School District's supervisor for security. She says the active-shooter action plan video has helped teachers and staff become better prepared.
We were training our staff with get small, get quiet. We needed to do something to train our teachers, to prepare them so that more kids do survive should an incident like that occur.
The video, though, was considered inappropriate for students, and they never saw it.
But as part of the research for their own video, the journalism students met with Deborah Roepke, the head of the nonprofit that created the one for teachers. She suggested they consider addressing situations that could come up in an emergency.
DEBORAH ROEPKE, Executive Director, Coyote Crisis Collaborative:
There could be situations where you have rooms that are not lockable, so what does a substitute teacher, what does a student do in that situation?
Or if someone happens to be is in the restroom during a lockdown, a scenario included in the students' final cut.
Hide inside the stall furthest away from the door.
For additional information, the young journalists also interviewed students and teachers to learn more about their school's current emergency protocols, including what was and wasn't working.
LEAH HOPPER, Teacher, South Mountain High School:
We found a weak spot within our school, within specifically our department with accessibility. If you were able to get into my classroom, you would have access to all the other teachers' classrooms within my department. And that has been addressed, getting locks, two-way locks on our doors.
How effective would you say the drills at South are and why?
JOHN CANO, Teacher, South Mountain High School:
Our drills, evacuation drills, all of them or just…
All of them?
Haven't been as efficient as I feel they need to be. The first one we had in November, for example, was very poor, created a fire hazard at the choke point of our stadium.
It turns out many people noticed that problem.
Describe to me what happens when you have got 1,500 kids going to the football field at once?
It gets really hectic. If you can imagine so many kids shoulder to shoulder trying to get inside the football field. People start freaking out. And it just creates more problems than the one already presented.
The student journalists shared what they learned with administrators, and even though it wasn't news principal LaCresha Williams wanted to hear, she recognized its value.
We have a lot of work to do. We're working vigilantly to take care of that. And them uncovering those gaps and communicating them to us, that's just like gold. We need it.
But even after addressing those problems, there has been one issue that keeps coming up.
Do you ever tell your peers to take drills seriously or are you pressured by your peers to goof off?
Well, sometimes, I do feel pressure to goof off because they can — like, you don't want to be the one that's not.
Jose Contreras hopes the video will change a few minds about that.
Not everything is a drill. Sometimes, real stuff does happen, and people need to realize that.
The South Mountain journalism students hope to eventually distribute their video to other schools that request it.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm April Brown in Phoenix.
PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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