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 What Parents Should Know About School Emergencies

A news alert, text, or tweet notification about a situation at a school pops up on a parent’s phone, and anxiety and uncertainty are sure to follow. Parents are left wondering, what’s the difference between “lockdown” and “secure campus,” what does “shelter in place” mean, or does “evacuation” mean my child will be off campus?

San Diego County law enforcement and school leaders from around the region, including the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE), worked together to establish a streamlined glossary of emergency action terms. If there’s a danger on or near a campus, one or more of these terms may be used. Knowing what these terms and phrases mean may help ease uncertainty as school officials work to keep families informed during situations of perceived or real threat.

  • A lockdown is used to restrict movement within the school and to prevent intruders from entering occupied areas. Doors and windows are locked, windows are covered, and lights are shut off. Students and staff remain silent in place along a wall closest to the exit but out of view, until law enforcement or administrators give the OK for release.
  • A secure campus status is called in situations such as a danger in the surrounding community or a bomb threat made against a school. Staff take students indoors and classroom instruction may continue. Staff ensure that exterior doors are locked and the school perimeter is secured.
  • Shelter in place means that students and staff must remain indoors in order to avoid outside airborne contaminants, such as smoke, ash, or fumes from a gas leak or hazardous materials spill. Doors, windows, and vents are closed; and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems and pilot lights are turned off.
  • Take cover is a direction for staff and students during severe weather situations, such as windstorms or tornado warnings. They would go to the best-shielded areas on the ground floor of a permanent school building, and crouch on the floor away from windows. A take cover situation may result in a delayed dismissal time for students.
  • Duck, cover, and hold on is the action taken during an earthquake or explosion.
  • An evacuation order is given when it’s unsafe to remain indoors because of a potential danger, such as a fire or bomb threat. It means that students and staff move in an orderly manner along set routes from inside school buildings to a designated area outside.
  • An off-site evacuation means that students and staff move along set routes to a designated off-campus area when it is unsafe to remain at the school site.
  • Sometimes circumstances make it so that it’s best for students to not remain on campus. In this instance, a superintendent would authorize an early release. Normal dismissal procedures are followed -- just at an earlier time.
  • School officials or first-responders would declare the situation all clear when an emergency is over and normal school operations can resume.
  • An emergency damage assessment is the inspection process used immediately after an emergency to determine whether it’s safe to occupy the school buildings.
  • Structured reunification is the process for reuniting children with their families when the typical dismissal process is not appropriate. Parents and caregivers pick up their children through structured reunification, with all information tracked and verified, including the identity of the guardian picking up his or her child.

All public K-12 schools in California are required to have a comprehensive school safety plan, which must be updated annually. The California School Boards Association has compiled a list of resources on trauma, school safety, and campus security.