Franklin Elementary School was on lockdown for about 15 minutes Wednesday morning after a strange man was spotted inside the school.
But he was there for a reason.
That strange man, dressed in slacks and a blazer and carrying a bookbag, was former Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Captain Mickey Southern, who entered the school to help with an annual lockdown drill conducted by the Surry County Sheriff’s Office.
Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson said shortly before the surprise drill that so far his department had tested the lockdown procedures at 11 of the county’s 18 schools.
“I’ve been very pleased with their performance, especially since this time we began adding that unknown subject to the drills in an effort to make it as realistic as possible,” he said. “The schools have exceeded our expectations.”
Atkinson said the county sheriff’s office has been conducting the drills since around 2005, and notes they are critical to being prepared in the event of an actual crisis.
“After Columbine, law enforcement changed with respect to school shootings,” he said. “For years, our tactical team has received training in a classroom, and that stuff is fine, but you don’t get a real-life frame of reference sitting in a classroom.”
Which is why he began conducting the drills.
“The first year or so, we scheduled it with the schools so they knew ahead of time, and of course everything went perfectly since they knew we were coming,” he said. “But after that, we began doing unannounced drills, which was a big step for the board of education to allow us in to take charge of the school. We just showed up and told them we were putting the school in lockdown.”
During Wednesday’s drill, Southern simply walked into the school and picked a random staff member, who he gave a password alerting them of the lockdown. Once the staff member heard the password, the school was placed in lockdown.
“It makes it much more realistic,” Atkinson said. “He could go to the office, or approach a staff member, or even approach teachers on the playground. The reason we’re giving him the freedom to do it differently is in real life you don’t know where or when a crisis is going to happen.”
Within minutes of receiving notice that the school was on lockdown, a swarm of deputies and investigators were on the scene, going from class to class checking on teachers and students.
County School Superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves, who attended the drill for the first time, said he is pleased with how the school staff responded.
“Safety is our top priority, and this is just a great way for us to practice our drills,” he said, noting that both the school system and sheriff’s office benefit from the practice. “It’s a way for us to strengthen our procedures, while letting the sheriff’s department work on theirs.
“I think what they’re doing is great. It’s important for them and important for us.”
Atkinson said he believes the county schools are as prepared as possible, and he credits the spirit of cooperation between the school district and law enforcement.
“I don’t know of any other school system in the country doing this, and am really grateful for the support of our school system and the board of education for allowing us to do it,” he said. “I’m satisfied that we know that in a real-life situation, we’re as well prepared as any school system anywhere in this country.”
And checking on a classroom of children, he made that feeling known.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” he said with a smile to a blonde-haired girl. “You are in a safe place, the lights are off and you’ve done what you’re supposed to.
“Overall, you guys are in great shape. Everyone is safe and that’s what we want.”
The little girl smiled and returned to her desk.
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.