Gunfire in a nearby parking lot disrupted the Hoover High School homecoming football game in Des Moines in September. The incident made vivid the many stories about armed violence in and around the nation’s schools.
Hoover stages drills throughout the year to prepare students, teachers and administrators for emergencies. Vice-Principal Jamie Badger is on the intercom to begin a simulated lockdown of the north-side Des Moines high school.
“This is only a drill, I repeat this is only a drill," he assures everyone. "At this time we’re going to initiate an external lockdown, or perimeter lockdown, which means we have received word that there’s a threat in the neighborhood or surrounding area."
The halls are cleared, teachers and staff secure all doors entering the building, Badger awaits word from Des Moines Police that the exercise is over. He’s been an educator for more than 30 years and has practiced this kind of safety measure over and over.
“Quite honestly, we learn things every time we do them," he says. "So, that’s why it’s so important we do them regularly because we ask for feedback, we ask for input about what things we need to get better at, what things went well, that type of thing.”
These simulations are not just to prepare for a danger-in-the-neighborhood or an active shooter scenario. Hoover, like most schools, runs drills for severe weather, fires and medical emergencies. But safety concerns jump to the forefront when a Sandy Hook or a Marjory Stoneman Douglas or a Columbine-type incident erupts. Hoover Principal Sherry Poole brings a nontraditional background to the job of protecting students.
“I was a police officer for the city of Boone for 11 years,” she says.
Poole’s concentration on school safety intensified this fall when gunshots rang out near McGrane Stadium during Hoover’s homecoming game with rival North High.
“I think I’m a little hypersensitive now because of the events of September," she says. "And honestly, I hope that never goes away because I’m constantly looking at safety issues.”
The shooting incident prompted a review of what Poole calls “systems.” How are school officials communicating with parents? What doors need card readers to gain access? How can the school be made really safe? The one constant source of protection at Hoover is the Student Resource Officer, who for the last few months has been Des Moines policeman Ryan Armstrong.
“We’re also a mentor, we’re also a kind of counselor, we have a multifaceted job,” he says.
He helps train teachers and staff to deal with acts of violence.
“We know there are things that are going to happen," he says. "We just want to make sure they’re not happening in the school.”
Officer Armstrong is on duty all day, every day. This comforts senior Olivia Proctor, editor of the school newspaper, who has safety on her mind these days.
“I do think about it, especially after our Homecoming game," she says. "But we always have police officers on campus, so I do think it is a safe campus.”
Proctor carries an ID with her as she maneuvers between classes. She presses a button at the main entrance to get buzzed into the building. Sophomore Jamiean Cembs says he rarely thinks about danger at school – until he hears about another mass shooting like the one in Parkland, Fla., earlier this year.
“It concerned me because this is a reoccurring that happens on and on and on," he says. "We have just not figured out anything to stop it.”
The executive director of Safe Havens International, Michael Dorn, says the chances of a student being killed in a campus shooting incident are low. His nonprofit works with schools around the world to draft safety policies and he says a kid is ten times more likely to be hit by a car in the parking lot.
“The common misperception is that violence has flared up in recent years," he says. "It’s actually the opposite of that. The homicide rate is half of what it was in the 1970s, and we have 15 million more students, by the way, than we did back then.”
Still, Dorn says, drilling safety procedures into the minds of school employees is crucial. It’s something administrators at Hoover already understand. Vice Principal Badger brings the safety exercise to an end.
“We have received word from the Des Moines Police Department that there is no longer a threat in the neighborhood or surrounding area," he announces. "So, it’s now business as usual at Hoover High.”