There were about eight RCMP vehicles parked outside Maple Ridge secondary school on March 6, and inside students sat inside classrooms with doors locked, cell phones turned off, and everyone silent.
It was the latest lockdown drill, which is considered a key step in keeping children safe.
These circumstances bring to mind last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 12 killed and 14 injured.
In Canada, there have been 15 shootings at schools and post secondary institutions since 1975.
But safety remains an issue.
In 2016, an Abbotsford teen was killed and another injured when a man who was not a student entered Abbotsford Senior secondary and stabbed two young women.
Judy Dueck is the acting manager of health, safety and wellness in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district, and she said schools set safety measures in place over a decade ago to help keep students safe.
The lockdown drills are one tool.
In both secondary and elementary schools, the protocol is for the lockdown to be announced, students return to their classrooms and the teachers lock the doors and turn out lights.
Then the students turn off their cell phones to avoid attracting attention, and stay silent. Students and staff stay away from doors and windows. If students or staff are outside the school, they are advised to move away from the building – to a neighbouring business if possible.
Elementary schools do the drills without involving the RCMP once per year, and every secondary school does drills with RCMP twice a year.
The goal is to have everyone react as if there is a real emergency scenario, said Dueck.
Ridge Meadows RCMP Sgt. Brenda Gresiuk is in charge of the Uniformed Community Response Unit that takes part in the school lockdown drills.
“The objective is to work with the school district, so if there is an emergent situation, we know how to react,” she said. “And practise makes perfect.”
Gresiuk said the officers responding have their own set of protocols. Every officer can call up school floor plans and emergency contacts on the computers in their cruisers.
She did not want to go into details about how police respond.
She deemed the Tuesday drill a success – perfected over years of practise, with everyone taking it seriously and playing their role.
There is some comfort offered by preparedness, said Gresiuk.
“Sometimes the fear of crime can be worse than the crime itself.”
What has happened in the past, and trends in other parts of the world, can be used to predict what could happen here, she said.
“We do have a different climate here overall [than the U.S.], but that does not mean we become complacent.”
A school shooter is perhaps the most extreme circumstance police would respond to, but Gresiuk said a school might go into lockdown over less urgent safety concerns, such as a bear on the grounds, if the school administration deems it the safest course of action.
Dueck said Edith McDermott elementary went into lockdown because there was a gas leak in the neighbourhood. Others have been called because of physical altercations happening near the school.
There are circumstances, such as police pursuing a suspect in a school neighbourhood, that are likely to trigger lockdowns.
Dueck said all high schools in the district now have a system of security cameras, so administration can have eyes on virtually the entire school from the office.
At every school, visitor traffic is also controlled. Elementary schools keep all doors except the front doors locked. At secondary schools, all doors are kept locked where practical.
Visitors must report to the office, and sign in and out. They also wear a lanyard that identifies them as a visitor.
“Please, when you visit our schools, always go to the office and sign in,” she said.
Even Dueck, who is well known to administrators and staff in the district, follows this protocol. It is important in the event of a fire, earthquake or other emergency for administrators to have a list of everyone who is still in the building.
Another layer of security is the school’s response to threats. There have been people threaten to bring a weapon to school.
“When people utter things that are threatening, there has to be a follow-up,” Dueck said.
Each school has a threat assessment team that may include administrators, district staff, the school counsellor and police.
Any threat-making behaviour by a student, whether it is written, verbal or gesture, must be responded to. Once the principal learns about it, he will activate the threat assessment protocol.
There could be further security measures taken, such as locking all school doors and having staff screen all visitors, or have metal detectors at schools.
“It’s not someplace I would like to see our schools go, but if we have to, it’s something that could be considered,” said Dueck.
School district chair Mike Murray said he is confident that between school lockdown drills and emergency protocols, including RCMP protocols, everything possible is being done to keep students safe.
He said the threat assessment is also key, and noted that the alleged perpetrator of the Florida school massacre had made public threats that he would shoot people with his AR-15, and police had been called to his family home numerous times – on 39 occasions since 2010, according to CNN reports.
Murray said Canada is fortunate to have a culture that does not foster many school shootings.
“I’m thankful I live in Canada, where I don’t believe we have the kind of gun culture that prevails in the U.S.”