Dr. Robert McClarin has the patient and mellow air of someone who has been an elementary-school principal for 27 years. Silently, he walks the empty halls of his domain--Desert Cove Elementary School on 28th Street, just north of Shea Boulevard--tugging on doors to see if they are locked, peering into the bathrooms to make sure there are no students where they shouldn't be.
School is in session, but the halls are disquietingly empty. Most of the windows in classroom doors have been completely covered; those that have not reveal children sitting on the floor, against the walls, behind desks and chairs. Today is Desert Cove's first "lock-down" drill. The Paradise Valley Unified School District--which straddles north Phoenix and north Scottsdale--has asked all of its schools to conduct such drills, literally locking all classrooms with students and teachers inside to practice what to do if a potentially dangerous person enters the building or if random violence breaks out in the neighborhood.
Either scenario is hard to imagine: Desert Cove sits in a quiet and cozy, middle-class community. If Phoenix actually had suburbs, this is what they would look like.
"You couldn't get a better situation than this," McClarin says of his school. "But what goes through your mind is that this sort of thing sneaks up on you. And because I've worked here for ten years, and even though there have been some reminders that we are part of a greater city and will have some of the same problems as the city, my first thought was, 'This is the stuff you read about in the paper happening to other people, not to us.'"
The district policy is not borne of overreaction to national headlines. Less than a month ago, for example, police called Cactus View Elementary School at Central and Grovers avenues to warn that a father who was irate over a child-custody argument was on his way to the school with a gun, ostensibly to claim a child who was a student there. The school locked the doors as a precaution even though the man did not actually show up.
"The student never knew about it, and that's the way it should be," says Cactus View principal Judy Dewalt. In fact, schools routinely keep custody records on file for when such disputes spontaneously erupt on campus. "Some years are worse than others when you have custody situations," Dewalt continues. "This year has been real serious. You're talking emotions and children; when you get into this area, people get irrational." And of that tendency, the lock-down drills arose.
The Paradise Valley District lock-down program started last year in select schools in high-crime areas at the request of Phoenix police. "It's not something we publicize, for obvious reasons," says Phoenix police officer Russell Reiker, who works with the school district as a resource officer, and who first suggested the program to the district administration. "We don't want to create a panic situation, but we do want to be prepared." Twelve of the Phoenix area's 26 districts participate in the police department's School Resource Officer program; of those, nine school districts have begun planning emergency lock-down procedures.
Palomino Elementary School, on 29th Street north of Greenway Road, was the first school in the Paradise Valley district to have such drills. Last school year, it locked down twice, once when police raided an illegal drug lab near the school and again when a high-speed auto chase ended with suspected felons abandoning their vehicle in the neighborhood. In both cases, the police wanted to avoid the possibility of hostage situations or of children walking into the line of danger.
"At first we pooh-poohed [the lock-down procedure] and thought we wouldn't ever use it," says Palomino principal Richard Ebert. "But then when we did use it, everybody found out that this is a valuable tool. It's like a fire drill. Yeah, I anticipate that there could be a fire, but I don't expect one."
It's a sign of the times, then, that teacher emergency manuals now have an entry for "Dangerous or potentially dangerous person(s) on campus," alongside more traditional emergencies such as fire and tornado drills. When they hear a code sentence over the intercom, teachers are instructed to nonchalantly lock their classroom doors and cover the windows, hopefully without the children noticing.
The Desert Cove drill goes without a hitch and without complaints from teachers or students. "There is not anyone who thinks this is not important," McClarin says. "The teachers wanted to make sure that whatever we did, we did not alarm the children, that everything was thought through."
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But the children, of course, have their own apprehensions. "My students had a lot of questions," says sixth-grade teacher Linda Stetser, a 20-year veteran of the Paradise Valley School District. "They asked, 'Are the windows bulletproof?' and 'What if you went to lock the door and he pulled you out; should we try to pull you back in?' We were laughing about it, but they were good questions." And Stetser admits quite frankly that she doesn't know the answers.
One first grader matter-of-factly describes the drill as "where to hide if a dangerous man is in the hall." And though she seems cheerful and unconcerned, she will have nightmares about men with guns.
More than one teacher remembers back nearly four decades to those air-raid drills that have become part of American 20th-century folklore: School children cowering in hallways or beneath desks, heads tucked to knees. Such drills were the grist of a generation's childhood bad dreams.
In this case, the bogeyman is of a more personal nature. "It's going to be someone we know," says Dr. McClarin, who is not prone to exaggeration. His personal nightmare involves "when I'm confronted by an armed person in school," and he sighs as he relates it. "I'm not looking forward to that," he continues. "But I believe that in this kind of a job, sooner or later, something like that will happen. Hopefully, I will use all of my experience to defuse the situation--and then I'll retire.