10 Strategies Principals Should Know Before a School Lockdown

Learn from this principal’s experience, just in case.

I’m a 13-year veteran principal with lots of tricks up my sleeve, but nothing prepared me enough for our recent actual school lockdown. We had just recovered from the Thomas Fire and could have used a little peace. We received a report of a suspicious man outside the fence of a school with an unknown object in his hand. This report resulted in a school lockdown for approximately an hour and a half. This experience forever changed me. Here’s what I learned:

1. Invest in all your school relationships now.

Making deposits into the emotional bank accounts of your students, staff, and families is crucial and must be a priority daily. We all are busy, but intentional daily focus on relationships gave my school community the trust they needed to feel safe and optimistic during the crisis. The time I spent getting to know their names, making positive phone calls home, being active on our PTA social media, and opening myself up as a transparent leader was worth it.

2. Have a  communication plan.

During an emergency, news spreads. With the widespread use of scanners and social media, parents will be notified while you’re managing your emergency. Have a plan. Do you have the person-power to update parents during the crisis? If you are a solo administrator like I am, you may not have the means. You may want to request additional administrative assistance from your district office. What is your plan for when parents call during the emergency? I recommend having a brief script for your office manager or clerk. Consider using FEMA’s Multihazard Emergency Guide for a more comprehensive plan.

Once the emergency is over, there are many tasks that need to be completed. First and foremost, communicate with parents. I highly suggest having a pre-formatted template letter for parents. That way, you can easily insert facts, dates, and times  and then quickly print and send the letter home with students.

3. Plan for extra help for lockdowns.

Again, because news spreads fast, ensure you have a plan for assistance, especially if you are the only site administrator. Parents will be worried, and some react by coming to the school. Once the emergency is over, many will likely want to pick up their students right away. In addition to parents, you will most likely have news media on site. You will need additional administrators to help manage information gathering and dispersement. The more plans you have in place, the better your autopilot will operate.

4. Have dismissal signs and protocols ready.


Once you’ve planned how you will release students, make sure you have pre-made signage to post around the entrances to campus. In your post-emergency protocol, you may choose to keep the office closed until all tasks are complete. In this case you would want some pre-made signs that say, “We are in post-emergency protocol. Students will be released to parents once protocol is complete.”

5. Post master school  enrollment lists in common areas

Sometimes students end up locked down in common areas of the school––the cafeteria, computer lab, or library, for example. Rather than having to write out each student’s name, it would be helpful to have a master list of students in each room. Then, you’ll be able to simply highlight all students that are present. This is also helpful when cross-referencing classrooms to make sure all students are accounted for.

6. Develop activities to keep students busy during a lockdown.

Similar to having first aid kits in each classroom, it’s helpful to plan student activity kits. For elementary, coloring books, blocks, crosswords, and a list of directions for interactive games, such as Heads up, Seven up, etc., are helpful for passing the time. It might even be a great time to remind kids of mindfulness activities designed to calm them down.

7. Consider best methods of communication.

In this day and age, school community members want information ASAP. If information is not given to them, they will take it where they can get it. It is important to communicate student safety as soon as possible to ease concerns. Using Facebook, Twitter, or an app such as Remind or Bloomz can be very helpful in getting brief messages out to ensure parents of students’ safety and to request that parents limit their calls to the school while you handle the emergency. Assurance that a full statement will follow as soon as possible is integral in that message as well.

8. Give updates to students and staff every 15 minutes.

One thing that has come up regularly since the lockdown was how safe the students and staff felt every time I reassured them over the intercom. I made brief announcements every 15 minutes to remind them that we were still in lockdown, police were on the scene, and all was safe. I recommend setting a timer to make sure you remember this important activity.

9. Debrief as soon as possible.

Teachers will need time to process and prepare for students returning the next day. Consider having a ready-made debriefing activity that can be modified by age. In addition, it is very important to share the facts around the situation to dispel any rumors or misinformation. Try to get this out as soon as possible so teachers have time to prepare. Teachers can choose their own activities if they wish, but having something prepared ensures that students are debriefed adequately. I would consult your school counselor to prepare this and be sure a counselor is on site for the full day.

Allow staff to share what they learned and note information that may need to be conveyed to parents––police entering classrooms or using bathrooms during a lockdown. Be sure to ask your staff what they need from you and make yourself available for private conversations that evening, as necessary.

10. Take a little time for yourself

In times like these our intellect and former training take over. Everyone will be looking to you for direction––often all at once. Center yourself by taking 30 seconds for a few deep breaths and to close your eyes. Yes, time is of the essence, but you need to ensure you are thinking clearly and following protocols. The time you take for yourself will help your decision-making process in the end.

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