Meridian Police and the West Ada School District are looking at ways to improve school lockdown procedures after a false alarm held Ponderosa Elementary students, parents and educators in suspense for about an hour last week.

School staff, students and law enforcement took the right steps to respond to a potential threat and proved that the school's lockdown training was effective, district spokesman Eric Exline said.

“The teachers and the staff and the kids did an amazing job," Ponderosa Elementary Principal Kathleen Crowley said. "The heroes are among us, and I couldn't be prouder. ... Also the Meridian Police and the school district, how they had our backs was so reassuring. Those folks are heroes as well.”

But there is some room for improvement, district and police officials said, in areas of communication with parents and with the lockdown code itself.

At roughly 9 a.m. April 6, a school district employee, who does not work exclusively in the Ponderosa building, inadvertently entered the lockdown code into the school's phone system while making a call, according to officials. This triggered a lockdown warning over the school speakers.

Crowley was in a meeting in a classroom when the digitized voice came on the speakers announcing a lockdown. She said she jumped out of her seat, ran to the front office and called 911. 

“I was alarmed,” Crowley said. “I didn't know what it was, and I was listening and looking as I went through the halls. I passed a teacher, and I told him to take shelter.”

Meridian Police responded with 15 officers, Sgt. Shawn Harper said. Meridian Fire and Ada County Paramedics also responded, as is protocol.

Police officers searched the building while school district staff identified the classroom where the lockdown code had been entered.

After 45 minutes, officers determined that the lockdown was a false alarm and there was no threat in the building, Harper said. 

"It obviously causes a lot of anxiety and panic with parents and students alike, but thank goodness it was false," Meridian Police Lt. Jeff Brown said. "But we treated it as if it was real and made sure the school was OK.”

Harper met with a crowd of parents in the school gym afterward. Some were upset and emotional, he said.

“I told them, 'Look, I'm a parent,'” Harper said. “'I have two kids in the West Ada School District that are in elementary school, and as a parent, I would be nervous, too, if something like this were to happen.'”

The school district employee who entered the lockdown code did so accidentally and didn't realize her error until later, officials said. 

Harper estimates that the Ponderosa incident was the fourth false lockdown alarm at a Meridian school this school year.

"We are working closely with the (West Ada School District) assistant superintendent, Don Nesbitt, and the regional directors on making some tweaks to the program in the fall to where we can hopefully reduce the number of accidental lockdowns," Harper said.

The school district will seek to improve communication by contacting parents sooner during an incident, Exline said. The district uses an emergency messaging system to text parents.

“The parents have expressed that they wish that the communication would have been faster and maybe clearer," Crowley said.  "I thought the school district did an amazing job. … We were trying to assess the situation. We didn't know if there was a threat or not when the police arrived.

"But I understand the parents' point of view for sure," she continued. "You know, there's always these things that can be improved.”

During a lockdown, police ask parents not to approach the school grounds because the nature of the threat is unknown — it could be a bomb or multiple shooters, Harper said.

Instead, police set up a public staging area not far from the school where parents can come get updates, he said. Maverik served as the staging area during the Ponderosa lockdown, but many parents didn't find out about it right away, Harper said.

“Every time we have one of these, we learn a little something and make changes," he said.

The lockdown at Ponderosa was triggered before school started, so many students were outside playing or getting dropped off at school, Brown said. Staff who were watching students outside did the right thing by fleeing the school grounds, he said. A large group of students and staff waited in the front yard of a house in a nearby neighborhood while police determined that the school was safe.

“You could see that the training we had done has been effective,” Exline said. “And the coordination with law enforcement was great. You can't say enough about how well law enforcement in our area responds to a crisis.”

LOCKDOWN PROTOCOL

Meridian Police hold lockdown drills each semester at every Meridian school, Harper said. Typically only the principal is warned before the second-semester drill. Parents receive a message from the school district afterward letting them know about the drill.

“It's pretty much ingrained in all these kids now on how to (respond) if a school goes on lockdown," Harper said.

Additionally, Meridian Police hold lockdown trainings for the staff at each school every semester. Other agencies, including Boise Police, put on the drills and training for West Ada schools outside of Meridian, Harper said.

A lockdown is when the school's external and internal doors are locked. Staff and students are instructed to leave the campus if safe to do so, and to barricade themselves in a classroom if not. The last resort is to defend themselves against the suspect.

This protocol is a national standard called the "Run, Hide, Fight" method, used by the West Ada School District and other local districts, Harper said.

More lockdown drills throughout the year, he said, would be beneficial.

"Because it's that muscle memory thing," he said. "The more times they go through it, the more comfortable they get and the better they do at it.”

A NEW NORM

Crowley has been an educator for 25 years, including 13 years as the Ponderosa Elementary principal. Lockdown drills have become the norm in schools, but that wasn't always the case. 

“When I was a teacher, way back then in the 'old days' ... we did fire drills, that's all we did," she said. 

A school shooting threat wasn't something that entered her mind, Crowley said, as it does now.

"I have a granddaughter, and it's sad to think that these little kids ... have to practice this," she said. "It's sad that it is the reality. And since it's the reality, we have to be prepared as best as we can, heaven forbid, that something would happen."

Hearing about shootings in schools across the United States impacts educators in Meridian and across the country, Crowley said.

"We are a family, and when one part of our family hurts, we all hurt," she said. "So when that happens, when Sandy Hook happened, Columbine, all of those horrible situations ... we all felt it and we all hurt. We all grieved for that.”

It's important to be prepared but not to dwell on the what-ifs, Crowley said. 

The silver lining of last week's false alarm, she said, was how much it affirmed among the school staff that they can count on each other, on police and on the school district in an emergency. 

"All of us feel this way here, the trust level is amazing," Crowley said. "As a staff, we've really come to appreciate each other in a way that we never would have been able to before."

OFFICERS IN SCHOOLS

Meridian Police has 10 school resource officers, or SROs, assigned to all high schools, middle schools and alternative schools in the Meridian impact area, Harper said.

All middle-school SROs are also assigned to the feeder elementary schools, which they regularly visit.

All SROs are sworn officers and are armed, Harper said. They handle safety, security and criminal investigations for the schools.

The SROs also mentor students and build relationships. They teach students about topics such as internet safety, bullying, distracted driving, life skills and decision making, Harper said.

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