During most fire and tornado drills, a murmur can be heard throughout halls as students impatiently chat, but just after lunch on a recent Friday, the classrooms of Waterloo High School were completely silent. No, it was not another snow day -- it was the beginning of the school's first intruder drill.
The intruder drill, part of new state legislation, had been simulated with local law enforcement and staff on site during the summer before. But Jan. 24 was the first time students were involved.
And at Waterloo High, the drill was a success.
Students Jessi Elder and Malone Wall said everyone in their classrooms remained calm and serious and were well prepared for the drill.
Malone, a senior, praised the information and advice given to students by teachers.
"They told me about a lot of options I never would have thought of on my own... If this (an intruder alert) would have happened before the drill, I would not have known what to do or could have frozen up," Malone said.
"I think (the drills) are a good idea because having a planned course of action will give us a better idea how to be prepared," Jessi said.
Although the drill went well, debate and uneasiness marked the early stages of planning. Teachers and administrators were unsure how parents and students would feel about approaching the sensitive subject. The district made sure to include parents and to receive their input and concerns, holding informational parent meeting. Well-informed parents were more comfortable with the drill.
English teacher Cheryl Martens explained her feelings about the early discussion, saying, "People were worried about how the public and parents would view this, but I thought that was odd. What parent wouldn't want his or her child to know what to do in an emergency?"
Other teachers agreed, saying the drills are imperative for safety, and students feel empowered because of them. Many said they feel parents appreciate the serious approach the school is taking toward their children's safety, and the drill makes it obvious the children are the first priority. In the end, everyone decided involving the students in a lockdown drill was the best course of action.
Art teacher Jane Huebner said while intruder drills may increase anxiety for the day, in the long run, students will have less anxiety if they are more prepared.
"Students need to be informed in order to make informed decisions," she said.
As a parent, Huebner said she is pleased Waterloo Community Unit School District 5 has a plan.
"I would want my son to be at a school with a plan and to be informed about his own safety," she said.
Martens said students can act as allies in an emergency.
"Knowledge is power, and power gives people the opportunity to make an educated decision," she said. "Those decisions will lead to safety. I'm glad my students know what to do. I view them (my class) as 30 or so potential allies in this battle, and I want them armed to the teeth with knowledge of what to do. It's our best defense."
At Waterloo High School, there is also a team of specially-prepared teachers known as the Response Team. This team activates in case of any emergency, such as a gas leak or a student injury, but they played an especially important role in the intruder drill.
Team member Matt Lucash said although it is difficult to run a realistic drill without causing some stress, his students all paid attention and provided constructive comments. "Our students are more capable of dealing with this than we give them credit for," he said. "Speaking with my students today (Jan. 24) showed me that they genuinely want to know their options."
Fellow Response Team member and Dean of Students Carrie Griffith said intruder drills like the one at Waterloo have become a necessity.
"I think it's good to have the discussions. I wish we didn't have to, but that's not how things are in society any more," she said.
With all these preparations, one might wonder what exactly the students and teachers are prepared to do. While Waterloo High School wishes to keep the exact plans and school-specific tools confidential for safety reasons, school officials would say the response involves a basic lockdown procedure and teachers are taught what options are available in their classrooms for protection or evacuation. The lockdown and response is organized to happen very quickly and effectively.
With intruder drills being implemented in other schools across the state, Waterloo High teachers were asked what their advice would be to another school going through a similar process.
Teacher Matt Lucash advised other schools to conduct intruder drills.
"The longer you wait, the longer you stay in the dark," he said. Lucash also stressed the importance of sharing ideas and practicing what works and what doesn't.
Griffith said her advice is to "make sure to have good communication regarding the procedures with teachers, students, families and the community."
Teacher Jane Huebner highlighted the role of teachers, defining it as "to try to make the safest possible environment for the students, to try to plan for every possible contingency, and to know the different options available in each classroom."
Martens' reply was simple: "What are you waiting for? We don't wait for a fire to happen before doing a fire drill."
Concerning the intruder drill, Waterloo School District Superintendent James Helton said, "Our faculty, staff, and parents have done an outstanding job of embracing the need for additional training in Waterloo CUSD5.
"Preparation for danger is nothing new; we have been doing fire, tornado, and earthquake drills for years," he said. "Within one year of the worst school fire disaster in 1958, changes to school safety regulations have saved innumerable lives. Is it sad we have to worry about violent intruders in our schools? Yes, but hopefully within a few years, we can laud the same statistic as fire drill prevention.
"Intruder preparation varies from lock down to preservation of life; training expands our options. At our last parent informational meeting it was stated, 'Thank you. You truly are putting into practice the words of providing a safer learning environment for our students and staff.'"