Forty-seven seconds: That’s how long Mark Williams says it would take him to secure his classroom from an intruder at Central High School in Phoenix.
Williams should know. He’s the man the Phoenix Union High School District turns to for training about lockdown situations. The former police-officer-turned-teacher is chairman of Central High’s English department, but lately he has also been busy answering questions and hosting seminars for local teachers on “what they need to know and do during a very bad day.”
Williams laments the seemingly endless cycle of school shootings across the country that seems not to stop.
“What is important is to have a plan,” he says. “There are some [Arizona] schools that to this day do not train.”
“Forty-Seven Seconds” is also the title of Williams’ book. Published last year, it outlines the steps not just educators but everyone should take in the event of an emergency. Williams’ most recent seminar, at Camelback High School, was held soon after the Parkland, Florida, shooting in which a 19-year-old former student armed with an assault rifle killed 17 teens and adults.
Some of the teachers at his seminar hadn’t thought about a lockdown plan.
“I can guarantee after that meeting I had 200 people with a plan,” Williams says. “You do not want to be trying to come up with a plan when your heart rate is 180 (beats per minute).”
A former special agent with the Arizona Attorney General’s office, Williams says it’s also every parent’s responsibility to know if their child’s classroom has an emergency plan. He urges parents to talk to school administrators if their child’s school lacks a plan or lockdown training.
The Arizona Department of Education has guidelines and requirements for schools to do lockdown training. Proactive school administrators are working to make campuses less vulnerable. In Williams’ district, for example, new locks are being installed so teachers can secure their classrooms from the inside. Schools are also working to minimize entry points and secure front offices.
Communication with children is important, too.
“Make the time to talk to your kids and ask questions,” Williams adds. “My daughter has three small kids, and she just talks straight. She says, ‘Sometimes there are bad people who want to hurt people for no reason. There’s very little chance they would come to your school, but there might be a time you need to hide and be quiet like a mouse, and you need to listen to your teacher.’ ”
Williams urges tailoring conversations to your child’s age. The subject may prompt tough questions, but the effort to answer children honestly and age-appropriately can make a difference.
“I would suggest not to make it a game, but talk straight,” he adds.
For teachers, Williams says the first step is to secure the classroom. Then, he says, “You want your kids to get small and get quiet. A lot of these people, a lot of these active shooters, are wired and have hyper [sensitive] hearing, so to elementary kids you want to say, ‘Be quiet like a church mouse!’ I tell my high school kids, ‘You want to make this place look like no one lives here.’ ”
How does Williams feel about proposals to arm teachers? He can’t get behind it, for reasons including liability and the possibility of harming innocent bystanders.
“You are going to pay for these people to carry, you are going to pay for a $5 million insurance policy, because that individual, I can guarantee you, will be sued by either the suspect’s family or by the people he shoots accidentally,” he says.
Williams urges educators to have a backup plan once their classrooms are quiet and secure. Ask: Is there a way to get students out of a dangerous situation?
In his own case, Williams keeps a 40-foot rope coiled next to his desk that he could lower to the ground from his second-story classroom in the event he needed to get his kids out fast. He admits he used to get teased about that rope. Today, no one is laughing.