On Jan. 23, the Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies school's principal made an announcement that everyone in the building was participating in an active shooter lockdown.
Some teachers and students didn't hear that the lockdown was a drill and began reacting to what they thought was an active shooter. For 7th and 8th grade math teacher Kristan Sterling, who also has two daughters who attend the school, panic began to set in. While in her classroom on the second floor she questioned if fight or flight was the best option.
She recalls her students looking at her for direction on what to do and her response being that they should run home. "In my mind it was keeping my students safe and making sure my own children were safe," Sterling says. "Which is kind of impossible to do when I am in a classroom with my own students and my biological kids are elsewhere."
It wasn't until she heard doors opening in the hallway leading up to her class and chatters of "good job" that she realized this wasn't another school shooting.
During a Cincinnati Public Schools policy meeting, two teachers recounted their day and emotions as they panicked to ensure their students were safe. School board members Mike Moroksi, Pamela Bowers and Ryan Messer listened with other CPS officials including security supervisor Ralph Ruwan who says administrators are told to announce when a drill is happening.
He says current policy requires principals make an announcement that the drill is happening and give continuous updates on where the school resource officer is as they move through the building. During that time, the SRO checks the doors to ensure they're locked, and everyone is out of sight.
That wasn't what Sterling or English as a Second Language Teacher Dianna Schweitzer recall.
"The teachers were there; they say they didn’t hear it," Ruwan says. "The police officer that I talked to say the principal did say it. That threw up a red flag." He says if students believe a drill is real, they could call their parents, which could further induce panic.
Schweitzer says she was happy to hear that drills must be announced. "They referred to their protocol and I didn't know that policy existed as a teacher," she says. "I believe that administration did know about that policy." She says prior to this she has had to complete interactive online trainings.
Schweitzer and Sterling made several recommendations to the policy committee. A few include giving teachers a heads up that drills will happen that day, principals giving updates about where the SRO is in the building, and making robocalls to parents before and after drills to keep them informed.
"Preparation is key," Sterling says. "I drill in my students' heads, practice makes perfect. The more you practice the better you will get." She says that same advice applies for adults, even when it’s a drill.
About 34% of the school's students are english language learners, which raised questions about how to ensure the students understood what was happening.
One of the concerns from board members was the trauma that can linger after an event like this. Several new recommendations were made to make the lessons learned official policy. Three of them are CPS General Counsel review school safety policy with specific language on how drills are supposed to happen, remind principals how drills must be done, and create a stakeholder committee to create safety policy.
During the meeting, board memeber Moroski asked Ruwan if there was a committee for school officials and community members to work on safety measures. Ruwan answered no. "I was a little surprised," Moroski says. "I do think there should be some real substantive change in this new safety committee that works with our head of security and general counsel that doesn't exist."
CPS' lawyer will bring feedback to board members in March.