Districtwide false intruder alarm causes fear, but proves school, law enforcement are prepared

Posted 3/16/22

By Bruce Karnick [email protected] A lockdown safety drill at one Hastings school last week triggered a lockdown alarm at all district schools and the Hastings Police Department. While it caused …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Districtwide false intruder alarm causes fear, but proves school, law enforcement are prepared


By Bruce Karnick

[email protected]

A lockdown safety drill at one Hastings school last week triggered a lockdown alarm at all district schools and the Hastings Police Department.

While it caused fear among some students and parents, it also brings home the reality of what schools must do to ensure their buildings remain safe.

That safety process is exactly what was happening the morning of March 9 during a planned lockdown drill that was scheduled to take place at one school at 8:30 a.m.

“This is why we have each individual building training. I don't know if parents are aware of this, but each building trains a minimum of five times a year with students on lockdown procedures and on evacuation procedures. So, these situations are always going to elicit an emotional response, particularly when they're not planned,” explained Superintendent Robert McDowell. “I think where we have to really be grateful is how impressive it was – that our staff and our students responded so appropriately and responded immediately. And that allowed for law enforcement at the high school to do what they needed to do. We heard over and over from law enforcement that the kids were where they were supposed to be. There was a clear path to get to the building. And that is really because of the great job that both staff and students have done in order to understand what they should do when they're put in a situation that could be a real emergency.”

The drill being run was designed to help teach students what to do if an intruder were to enter the school to cause harm to them. Parents should think back to the time they were in school, and unplanned fire drills happened. The difference is there were no cell phones back then. Students didn’t text their parents when there was an alarm at the school. With today’s technology that is in everyone’s pocket, kids can contact their parents within 30 seconds of an alarm going off.

When the alarm was triggered for the drill at one school on March 9, it triggered the alarm for real at all the schools in the district, plus the alarm was triggered at the Hastings Police Department where officers leapt into action. The officers arrived on scene quickly, some in less than a minute, and most of them within six minutes to assess the situation.

McDowell is thankful for the relationship that the school has with the Hastings Police Department.

“We're an example of a town that has a great school resource officer and relationship with our police department, and this is the result of that. They really understand our schools, they understand what calls go on here, and they are able to really be a part of the fabric of the schools,” he said.

Police Chief Bryan Schafer was also pleased with his officers’ efforts.

“Nearly 20 law enforcement personnel responded, with the first on-scene arriving within one minute and the majority arriving in six minutes. Additionally, over 200 students self-evacuated to rally points led by school staff while the remaining students sheltered in-place,” said Schafer.

Within five minutes, the alarm was discovered to be a false alarm. That discovery did little to ease the minds of some parents on what could have been taking place, however.

“I was shook,” said parent Alison Freiermuth. “I took my son out of school, and we are spending the day together. The thought of him being in a situation like that had me in a total panic, and I can't stop thinking about it. I don't care who thinks I'm crazy. My kids are my whole world, and I am going to be holding them extra tight today.”

Melissa Brabec shared her thoughts that afternoon. “Decompressing on this morning’s Intruder/ALICE alarm at the high school. In those 2-5 minutes when the kids and parents didn’t know it was a false alarm and you received a panicked phone call from your children saying they were scared but running to a safe spot, or they called you to tell you they loved you and were safe… It felt very real and not like a false alarm. I’m relieved it was, but it was a wakeup call for our family on what happens if it is real as well as how to help them deal with how they felt when they were scared for their life and running to a safe spot. Big hugs to all of you that got that call this morning (including me). It’s a call I hope to never have again. Thank you to the teachers and admin for doing the best they could in that situation,” she said.

Parents and students alike were describing the fear that set in during the five minutes that likely felt like a lifetime in the moment. Frantic text messages of fear, to being ok. Here is a text chain from a parent who asked it to be anonymous.

Student 8:36 a.m. “We’re in a locked closet he said on the thing it’s not a drill” Student 8:37 a.m. “Everyone left, my class is the only one in school.”

Student 8:39 a.m. “Hello” “I’m so scared” Parent 8:40 a.m. “What room are you in?” Student 8:43 a.m. “The ***** room, But I’m in a closet.” Student unknown time “Someone said it was a false alarm.” In the email, the parent said, “That conversation may very well have taken a year or two off my life.”

For the schools in the district besides the high school, the false alarm was noted and communicated within around five minutes according to McDowell.

“Part of the thing that is different at the high school than the other buildings is, the high school also has an automatic audio alarm that went off that the other schools don't have. So, the other schools were able to internally make an assessment really quickly without alerting the whole building.”

That verbal alarm at the high school delayed some of the communications with students. That meant there were up to seven or eight minutes of students, staff, law enforcement and parents not knowing what was exactly going on.

Assistant Principal Trent Hanson made a school-wide announcement at the high school starting around 8:46 a.m.

“Raider Nation, this is Mr. Hanson, assistant principal checking in with everybody. Everybody take a deep breath and relax. This lockdown is over. I'm happy to report that this was a false alarm. It was actually a practice drill for lockdowns happening in a different part of the school district and unfortunately, it triggered the real alarm at multiple buildings, including ours. So, from what we were able to see, I want to commend everybody, students and staff for their fast reaction. Calm under pressure, you absolutely did the right thing. This lockdown was done in about one minute. We have a lot of law enforcement here. We do have a number of students and some staff that did evacuate the building. So, they are working on the three rally points to bring kids and staff back to school because it's safe to be here. So, a couple logistical things for everybody moving forward. First of all, we're going to craft a message that's going to go home really quick here, so everybody's parents and guardians get a real timely update on what just happened. Second thing is we're obviously supposed to be in second hour. In a second here, when I hang up the phone, we're going to give everybody kind of their traditional, you know, five, six minutes of passing time, and then everyone needs to go to second hour…So, students you've always done the right thing and acted with class. I'm just going to follow that prompt and ask staff just be visible and present.”

Reflecting on the morning and the scare left some students asking why they were not allowed to go home for the day because they were so shaken from the event. Other students, once they had the opportunity to breathe and have the relief knowing they were safe, were complimenting the response of their classmates, the school staff and law enforcement.

A district wide message was sent to parents around 9:10 am regarding the false alarm.

From: [email protected] The is a message from Hastings Public Schools: This morning at approximately 8:30 a.m., a planned lockdown drill at one of our buildings inadvertently sent multiple buildings into lockdown mode. This dispatched local law enforcement as well. There was not an actual emergency happening within any building and we appreciate the immediate response and actions of our students, stall, and law enforcement.

Some parents expressed being upset on social media that the school needs to be more specific in their messages when addressing an issue such as this. The piece that needs to be remembered on this: It takes time to gather information. The staff did not know during the onset of the alarm that it was an inadvertent trigger of the alarm and everyone, including parents acted accordingly. The community at large did their part and let the officials do theirs, a piece that McDowell recognized.

“Yeah, that's correct, that and that the police department again said over and over again how one piece that went really, really well was how parents and families did just that, and it allowed for the squad cars to get where they needed to get because of what they thought they were going into. We were able to communicate what we knew at the case. It’s really a matter of allowing for everyone to figure out exactly what the facts are. And then putting everyone in a position where we can keep the kids and the staff as safe as we possibly can as we work through the situation,” explained McDowell.

McDowell touched on the parental fear and explained what happens after an event like this.

“We will never be able to take away that parental fear that happens when these things happen. However, in a situation like this, when we have something that goes unplanned – in this case where we have inadvertently put all of the buildings in lockdown – what we do is an after-action review. We walk through what worked, what didn't work, why didn't it work? What could we do better? On that afternoon, me and the police department, the police chief, deputy chief, our School Resource Officer, the school admin, met with high school staff and we walked through the moments of what happened here. What didn't happen, what can we do better? What did the kids say worked? What did the kids say didn't work? So, we use those as opportunities now, to make our system better. Figure out how we don't make decisions that we shouldn't, how we make better decisions, how do we communicate better? What do we need to say? How do we make people feel more secure? Everything.”

Chief Schafer added, “Police, staff and students train regularly for this type of event and in this case, everyone did exactly as they were trained. While this was a stressful and traumatic experience for some, the response by law enforcement, staff, and students, exceeded our expectations.”

Said McDowell, “The community response to this was fantastic. One of the takeaways is, from that perspective, the system as a bigger system worked exactly the way that it should. And so, we really need to feel good about that. That doesn't mean that people weren't frustrated. You know, everyone wants to have more information and we'll never be able to get it out fast enough. And we'll only give as much information as we know to be true at the time. But at the same time, everybody really did a great job of just allowing it to happen and allowing people to do what they needed to do. Yes, I would agree that what we have, it's a complex system and there's always an opportunity for errors to take place. But we think we've got that organized and working moving forward.”

Kudos to the students, the parents, the school staff, Hastings Police Department, and Dakota County Sheriff’s Office for their exemplary response to what turned out to be thankfully a nonemergency drill.