How real is too real when conducting code red drills?

Counselor says students can be traumatized whether threat is real or not

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – On the morning of Dec. 6, dozens of panicked parents dialed 911, believing there was a real active shooter at Lake Brantley High School. 

"My daughter has called me, or messaged me from Lake Brantley High School saying they are having like a, they are in a real code red," one crying mother can be heard on the 911 call, her voice shaking. 

Some parents cried, while others were angry, not learning until they spoke to someone on dispatch, that all the panic was over an unannounced code red drill.

"It's just a code red drill. They must have put it out wrong or something because we are getting several calls from parents," the dispatcher told one father. 

"Jesus. OK. Great," he replied, clearly frustrated. 

School officials said no one knew, except the school resource officer, knew about the unannounced code red drill -- not the administration, teachers, students or parents.

"I literally thought to myself that I am not going to see her again," Lake Brantley mother Colleen Eskins said the day after.

She was crying at her desk, really thinking her daughter's school was under attack. 

"I think the drills should continue, but I think they need to be done in a safe way, that's not just physically but emotionally for everybody involved," Eskins said. 

School officials said the panic at Lake Brantley was what they called a "perfect storm" of things that went wrong. Parents weren't notified about the drill until an hour after the unannounced code red drill took place. 

"They thought it went out, but it did not go out," said Seminole County School spokesperson Michael Lawrence. 

It wasn't long afterward, during a busy lunch period, a second scare sent students running again and sent parents venting their fears and frustrations on social media.

Only News 6 obtained emails parents sent to school leaders afterward, many of them questioning the effectiveness and reasoning behind not telling anyone about the drill and questioning how real is too real?

"The emotional and physical distress that the kids suffered is ridiculous over a drill. I'm all for being prepared, but it's obvious that this is not the way to do it," one parent wrote. 

"The panic that was sent through the community could have been avoidable," another wrote. 

The Washington Post recently conducted a study showing 4.1 million students endured lockdowns last school year and many were left traumatized.

The study highlighted stories of students leaving behind wills and sending last texts to parents, believing they were really going to die. It's something Hilary Bornstein, a mental health counselor in Longwood, says she has seen locally while treating students in her practice who have had negative responses and emotions to the code red drills.

She said when it comes to how students respond, it doesn't matter if the threat is real or not. 

"In general, the trauma response in the brain is not activated based on the actual danger in the environment -- but the brain's perception or threat," Bornstein said, adding there is a better way. "It doesn't need to be scary to be effective."

After the incident at Lake Brantley, Seminole County Sheriff  Dennis Lemma quickly changed how code red drills are handled -- with no more surprises.

He sent a letter to parents which in part read: 

"I was briefed about what occurred at Lake Brantley High School at the conclusion, and I immediately suspended all Code Red drills until we could determine what led to the incident and make the necessary changes. The bottom line is this – we are no longer going to do these unannounced Code Red drills in that manner anymore," the sheriff wrote. 

Lemma said he is meeting with Seminole County Schools superintendent to move forward with the new policy.

"This plan will include both announced and unannounced Code Red drills. Announced, meaning that we will provide notice in advance of conducting the drill. To prevent a recurrence of what occurred on the campus of Lake Brantley High School, effective immediately when an unannounced drill is conducted we will notify everyone (faculty, staff, students, and parents) at that very moment that what is occurring is a drill," he wrote. 

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