Lockdown Basics

Though new to many institutions of higher learning in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, K-12 schools have been using lockdown protocols with some regularity and success for the past 30 to 40 years. One public high school in the Asheville, NC, region had just conducted a lockdown drill when the need arose to implement an actual emergency lockdown. A mentally ill individual began shooting beverage cans that he had placed on the trunk of a car. Unfortunately, the individual was shot and killed by local police there in the school parking lot, but lockdown procedures worked to effectively protect students and staff from the dangerous intruder.


This incident took place in the early 1970s. As weapons assaults are more prevalent on college, university, and technical college campuses than on K-12 campuses, the need to be able to safely protect staff and students with effective lockdown procedures is clear. At the same time, it is far more difficult to develop effective lockdown procedures for institutions of higher learning than for K-12 schools, and even harder to implement them under field conditions.


As with K-12 schools following the Columbine incident, many institutions of higher learning are revisiting, revising, or, for the first time, developing lockdown protocols. To help avoid some of the common mistakes made by many K-12 schools, here are some salient points for consideration.


    • Avoid the use of code words and phrases to direct people to implement any critical functional protocol such as a lockdown. Codes cause confusion that can result in the wrong protocol being implemented.

    • Develop two types of lockdown: a preventive lockdown for the vast majority of campus lockdown situations (where the teaching and work processes continue), and an emergency lockdown with more aggressive measures for the extremely rare instances where imminent danger is evident.

    • Be sure lockdowns can be self-directed as well as directed. This is incredibly important for schools where faculty and staff may detect danger before university police or safety officials have an opportunity to give direction. For example, staff must know when and how to lock down independent of an announcement or other emergency notification. Staff should be instructed to alert safety officials once they have implemented a lockdown for their area.

    • Support staff and even student workers must be empowered and prepared to implement any lifesaving functional protocols such as reverse evacuation, shelter in place, or lockdowns. The time required for a student worker at a library desk to locate a staff member to find a department head or call safety officials, brief them, and obtain direction, may be too long for the protective action to be implemented.

    • Give careful thought to the use of lockdown drills. Drills should be used in balance. As fires and hazardous materials incidents are more common on higher-ed campuses than shootings, we recommend that fire drills, reverse evacuation, and shelter-in-place drills be conducted at least as, if not more, often than lockdown drills. If you are in an earthquake or tornado zone, appropriate drills should be utilized for these hazards as well. As it is difficult to perform drills on higher-ed campuses, careful thought should be given to the frequency and timing of any and all drills. Virtual tabletop scenarios are one effective means to help prepare staff and students.

    • Key and plan component distribution is challenging but critical for colleges and universities. Workspaces and learning environments should have lockdown capability. Many K-12 schools have spent considerable sums of money enabling all faculty and staff to perform lockdowns by installing new locks, printing plan components, and training staff. As serious weapons assaults are more prevalent at our institutions of higher learning, this environment, too, is morally responsible for an adequate level of protection. Not having locks on classroom doors is like not having fire extinguishers in the building.

    • Effective emergency communications is very difficult — yet achievable — for higher-ed campuses. Internal and external public-address systems and a variety of other methods can be used and are needed, not just for lockdowns, but also for severe weather, chemical incidents, and a variety of other hazardous situations.

    • Keeping in mind that firearms attacks are extremely rare events for institutions of higher learning, we must be sure our safety efforts are in balance. At the same time, it is clear that the capability to provide secure spaces for staff, employees, and visitors is a moral obligation and a part of doing business in the field of education.



Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens Website at www.safehavensinternational.org.


About the Authors

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.


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