“Shelter-In-Place” vs “Lock Down” at my child’s school…what is the difference?

With numerous recent incidents involving area schools activating their “lock down” or “shelter-in-place” protocols, many parents have been left wondering what the difference between the two emergency protocols are.Shelter-in-place and lock down are two options for protecting students during times of crisis or emergency.

The Riverside County Office of Education has created emergency plans covering a variety of crisis, including fire, earthquakes, active shooters and campus intruders.

As a part of these emergency plans, school districts throughout Riverside County have trained key personnel at each school to immediately respond to incidents that might require sheltering-in-place or lock down.

What is a Shelter-In-Place?

Shelter-in-place is an effort to isolate students and staff from a perceived or real danger and is a temporary solution to a short-term problem.

The shelter-in-place plan protects students and staff in the event of:
  • An industrial accident
  • A chemical spill
  • A break in a natural gas pipeline
  • A heavy storm with high winds or heavy rains
  • Suspected criminal activity in the area that does not directly affect the school
  • A natural disaster or emergency requiring students to remain in their classrooms

The Shelter-In-Place plan has proven to be a safer approach than evacuating students into a potentially contaminated outdoor environment. Generally, the duration of these situations would last minutes or hours, not days.

For example, in the event of an emergency involving a chemical spill, the school administrators might bring all students and staff inside the main building and close and secure all windows and doors.

Parents would be permitted to access the building and their children once the school system is notified by safety and health personnel that it is safe to do so.

According to the Riverside County Office of Education, it is not the school district’s intention to keep children from their parents any longer than necessary; however, public health or safety officials may direct the schools to shelter students for prolonged or indefinite periods.

“It is the school system’s intent to make sure that children are safe inside their schools until such a time that the threat has been reduced,” officials explained.

What is a Lock Down?

A school lock down occurs when there is a threat or potential threat to staff or student safety in the area. Most often, this is due to police activity unrelated to the school, but in the very close vicinity.

During a lock down, the school is closed to all visitors and school personnel secure all building entrances, doors and gates, ensuring that no unauthorized individuals leave or enter the school property.

In an interior lock down situation, all students are kept in classrooms or other designated locations that are away from the danger.

Exterior lock down procedures may also be used to ensure the safety of students when an incident occurs in the community. Parents are permitted access to the building and to their children once officials have deemed it is safe for them to do so.

In the case of an extended lock ­down, parents would receive a message from the school district’s automatic telephone notification system.

Should a situation occur during the school day, RCOE would be directed by local law enforcement and/or other safety officials to lock down a campus for the safety of all students and staff members.

During a school lock down parents are strongly discouraged from going to schools due to the heightened risk. Should an emergency response be called for, it’s vital that emergency vehicles be able to reach the campus quickly and easily. Parents should only attempt to go to the school after a lock down has been lifted.


Here is a breakdown and further explanation from the Riverside County Office Of Education and answers to some frequently asked questions:

What is emergency preparedness?

RCOE has taken steps to ensure your child’s safety while in school. Each school has developed a crisis response plan. Emergency preparedness is basically preparing the steps you will take in the event of an emergency, such as contact information, communications, and evacuation plans.

Where do I look for information and to stay informed?

The Riverside County Office of Education has a number of different ways to get the message to parents. General information is placed on our website which is updated immediately in the event of an emergency, or school cancellations.

Additionally, Riverside County Office of Education works in partnership with the Riverside County Office of Emergency Services to outreach with local television and radio stations that assist in getting emergency information to the public.

Parents are encouraged to listen to the radio, watch television or go to the RCOE Website Emergency Preparedness Page for the latest messages from Riverside County Office of Education. Parents should not call their child’s school. The individual schools need to keep their lines open for communication with emergency responders.

What is Professional Crisis Intervention?

Crisis response teams provide care and support for students and staff affected by a crisis or an emergency. School psychologists, school nurses, and counselors staff these teams.

What is “heightened security”?

Parents may hear the term “heightened security” as federal code levels change from yellow to orange to possibly red. Each school has developed a crisis preparedness plan that outlines the steps to take in the event of emergency.

Plans include contact information, communications and evacuation plans. While the school system has security plans in effect every day at all schools, different situations call for heightened security levels.

These include additional security checks, more stringent guidelines for where and when field trips and activities may occur, and additional supervision during class changes, especially for students moving to and from mobile classrooms.

How will my child’s school handle an emergency situation?

All Riverside County Office of Education’s facilities have an emergency preparedness plan. The specifics of each plan differ for each location. The response to each situation will differ based on the specifics of that situation. The flexibility of the plan is key to the success of the response.

In general, each plan involves the designation of a crisis management team; development of 1) lock down, 2) shelter-in-place, and 3) evacuation procedures; preparation of a portable critical response kit that contains key information and supplies; designation of one or more appropriate evacuation sites; provisions for training personnel and updating the plan; checklists for dealing with specific types of incidents; and resources for help before, during and after an event.

All RCOE school plans have been reviewed within the last twelve months, and school crisis teams have received training.

What is a School Emergency Plan?

School emergency plans vary from school to school based on their location and facility. Responses also vary depending on the situation, and plans are flexible to allow schools to respond based on the emergency.

There are general components of each plan, which make up the essence of the crisis management teams’ responses.

All plans identify a crisis management team composed of school and administration building staff, who have been trained in handling emergencies.

There are procedures for evacuation, shelter-in-place, lock-down and heightened security.

Every school and school system center has information about designated evacuations sites, checklists for dealing with certain types of incidents and resources for before, during and after an event.

All school plans are reviewed at the beginning of each school year. We do not release specific plans for security reasons, but if parents have a concern, they can call their child’s principal.

What about my child’s medications?

Parents should make sure that schools have at least two days’ worth of medications needed.

Parents of students with medical needs that are not known to the school, such as daily medicine or other medical conditions that are administered or treated outside school hours, should contact the school nurse, who can provide additional information and help.

All medical information is kept confidential.

What are school emergency cards?

These cards are used to contact parents in an emergency. Parents should make sure that information on emergency cards is correct.

If home or office phone numbers have changed since the beginning of the school year, parents should notify the school. Additionally, only people listed on the emergency card are allowed to pick up children from school.

How will I pick up my child in a time of emergency?

RCOE’s primary responsibility is to keep children safe and secure.

RCOE does not intend to keep children from their parents if a crisis occurs during school hours or school activities. It is the school system’s intent to make sure that children are safe inside their schools until such a time that the threat has been reduced.

Parents will be able to reunite with their children by following signage at the school or will be informed of a parent-student reunification center location via the school system emergency messaging system and local media – if it is not the school site.

Can I pick up my child?

Parents are allowed to pick up their children unless public safety officials have declared a Lock-down or shelter-in-place response, or if there is some other reason why access to the facility is restricted.

During any emergency, school personnel will maintain as safe and normal environment for children within the school as is possible.

School is not automatically canceled in emergency situations. Remember, school may be the safest place for children to be.

Who can pick up my child?

Children will not be released to individuals who are not authorized on the student’s information card or who do not have written parent authorization.

The information card is completed by parents and guardians at the start of each school year. Parents and guardians are encouraged to update the Student Information Card, as needed throughout the school year.

Schools will also ask for identification when the child is released.

What if my child is riding a school bus at the time of a crisis?

School bus drivers will be in radio contact with the Office of Transportation for instructions in the event that a crisis occurs while students are in transport. Bus drivers will be informed to use common sense and not travel toward the crisis location.

Parents will be informed of the parent-student reunification center location via the school system emergency messaging system and local media.

What is an evacuation parent reunification site?

If public safety officials require that a school building be evacuated, students and staff members will be safely transported by bus to a designated parent-student reunification center.

Parents will be informed of the reunification location via the County’s emergency messaging system and by local media.

At the reunification center, students will be released to their parents upon presentation of proper identification.

Are students allowed to have cell phones at school?

Students are allowed to have cell phones at school.

Students are not allowed to have them turned on during the school day. In the event of an emergency, students will be allowed to use their phones to communicate with parents when specified by the principal.

It is important to recognize that during an emergency situation, cell phone circuits may become overloaded, interfering with Public Safety officials’ ability to communicate.

Student’s use of cell phones during an emergency will be appropriately limited.

Can I contact my child?

Parents are asked not to call the school in emergency situations so phone lines can remain accessible for handling the specific situation. Parents will be kept informed via the RCOE “All Hazard” Alert Notification system and through the RCOE website Alert and Advisory Page.

In the event of an intruder, terrorist attack, an act of war or other emergency situation, will RCOE School Sites go into lockdown?

The specific actions taken by RCOE in any emergency situation-both County-wide and at individual schools-will depend on the specifics of the situation.

Any action taken would depend on several factors, including the level of threat and the advice of local, state, and federal agencies.

The safety of students and staff members will be the primary concern in any decision.

Are school sites stockpiling food and water and other emergency supplies?

RCOE is taking action to make sure that schools and offices have the appropriate resources available including food and water and medical for a short-term event. In the event of a large-scale catastrophic event, RCOE would rely on federal and state authorities for assistance.

How parents can help?

Parents are also encouraged to prepare a family disaster plan and practice it so that everyone will remember what to do if a disaster does occur.

Everyone in the household, including children, should play a part in the family’s response and recovery efforts. Teach your children how to recognize danger signals. Make sure your children know what smoke detectors, fire alarms, and local community warning systems (horns, sirens) sound like.

DO . . .

  • Make sure emergency card information is correct.
  • Let children know that if a crisis occurs while they are in school, their teacher will provide them with appropriate instructions.
  • Tune in to the radio or television. Communication through the media, the school system information line and the web site will let parents know the place and time that they can be reunited with their children.
  • Keep alert to activity around the schools and on school grounds. Report any suspicious activities.
  • Keep the school nurse informed of a child’s medical condition and provide emergency medical supplies and medication.

DON’T . . .

  • Rush to the school or call the schools in emergency situations. Parents will be kept informed through our website, television and radio stations.
  • Send neighbors or other people not on the emergency card to pick up your children.


Contact the writer: [email protected]

trevor main

Trevor Montgomery, who recently moved from Riverside County to Shasta County, runs Riverside County News Source and Shasta County News Source. Additionally, he writes for Riverside County based newspapers Valley News, The Valley Chronicle and Anza Valley Outlook as well as Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County.

Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg, breaking his back and suffering both spinal cord and brain injuries in an off-duty accident.

During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center and Lake Elsinore Station, along with other locations.

Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.

Trevor has been married for more than 27 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 14 grandchildren.