Each school day, I say goodbye to my kids and watch them get on a yellow school bus in front of our house. It seems innocuous, but it's becoming more and more difficult to do. I want to believe that they will know what to do if someone tries to hurt them at school. I want to believe they will come back home safe and sound. But will they? I can't say for certain, and I have no idea if the lockdown drills they have actually work. When I asked teachers to tell me about those drills, they shared so many heartbreaking moments that happened during lockdown drills in schools where they work. And, as a result, it has become overwhelming clear that even if those drills keep children safe, they are impacting them in ways we have yet to understand.
As Vox reports, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, lockdown and active shooter drills are now implemented in over 90 percent of U.S. schools. A leading provider of active shooter training — the Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate (ALICE) Training Institute — recommends a combination of classroom training and drills to prepare students for what to do. Unfortunately, according to Newsweek, all lockdown drills are not created equal, as there's not a national standard for active shooter training. Newsweek also reports that lockdown drills can be really traumatizing for kids, especially if teachers aren't able to prepare kids in advance and are able to calm their fears.
Like it or not, teachers now bear at least the majority of the responsibility to helping prepare our kids for what to do if someone tries to hurt them at school. Should we expect underpaid, undervalued teachers to protect kids from harm? Should they sacrifice themselves to save the lives of the children in their care, potentially leaving their own child at home without a parent? How should teachers and administrators talk to kids about school violence that won't traumatize them? What will work to keep everyone safe? And what about kids who might not be able to wrap their heads around “just in case“ and, instead, imagine the "worst case scenario" over and over and over again?
I asked some teachers to share their experiences with lockdown drills, and it's clear that, at least for them, these experiences are totally heartbreaking.
"I teach high school, anywhere from freshmen to seniors depending on the time of day. We have active assailant drills every year, and previously the students would be mildly annoyed that we had to turn off the lights and press against one wall. Now it's different. We just had another one about a week ago, and the mood has changed. They were quiet, and I didn’t have to remind them of the procedures. Usually their eyes are bouncing around the room and whispering to their friends, but this time they were fixed on me. Were they wondering what I would do? How I would respond? Would they be able to be safe with me? And the truth is, they wouldn’t.
I am in a portable classroom, where holes are poked in the walls by mere pencils. It is located by the most vulnerable entrance to the school. The door opens out, so the assailant only needs to break the window and grab the handle; no amount of barricading would keep that from happening. I told them quietly that if something were to really happen, that I have a plan, and I do (at least intellectually). But I can’t share it with them. My plan would be fatal for myself, and they don’t deserve to bare that burden. I also have to think of the reality that one of them could be the next shooter and knowing any plan could help them take more lives. And there they sit, their eyes on me, afraid of the possibility."
"I taught Pre-K. I would have my class sit in a windowless hallway and sing 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.' One time a little girl stared crying uncontrollably because she was so scared. We tried to explain to her that it was just practice, but she was still terrified."
"I have an 11-year-old student with Tourette's syndrome. Her tics are mild, and involve vocalizations that are easy to miss in the noisiness of a regular class. So, if it weren't for lockdown drills, she'd be able to go through her life without feeling self-conscious about it. But, her tics worsen with stress, and in the silence of a lockdown drill, they seem really loud. The other students in the class don't make her feel bad about it, but it doesn't matter — lockdowns destroy this child, because she is convinced that if we ever have a real shooter, she will be the reason people die.
Every drill, the effort to be silent (and the guilt when she can't) costs her. When the end of the drill is announced she collapses, and our procedure for the last three years has been to give her safe space and then send her home with a parent so they can help her recover. We have put in place everything we are legally able to do to help during and after the drill, but the damage these drills are doing to this child is huge, and it's not going to stop. State policy says that schools can't inform parents ahead of time (which is also awful for our kids with anxiety), so there is no way to let her opt out of the drills, and it is likely to be her experience for the rest of her school career."
"I am a substitute teacher, and therefore teach all levels. I’ve been in actual lockdowns with 7th grade students, and drills with 7th and 1st. The most recent drill, with 1st graders, shook me the most, because my daughter is also in 1st grade. Nothing happened during the drill, but there was a class discussion afterwards to help them process it, understand the importance of practicing, and hopefully dispel any fear. The creativity they showed in coming up with horrifying situations was heartbreaking. What if the bad guy shot the lock off the door, etc. Nobody seemed traumatized except me."
"I'm at a smaller, rural school, where students aren’t exposed to much. My first active shooter drill in the school was unannounced. I personally was comfortable assuming it was a drill, solely because of how calm the principal was when he announced it. I locked my doors, got my students into the corner, and shut off the lights.
I told them I didn’t know how long it would take, and as long as they were silent and shut off their phones they could close their eyes and sleep if they wanted. Most students took me up on it, but one boy positioned himself so I couldn’t see him and promptly started to listen to new ringtones on his phone. I knew who it was and told him to knock it off; he’d stop for a minute and then do it again. I was pretty sure this was a drill, but the kids were not at all. After the third time, I was standing up to take his phone from him and the girl sitting next to him slapped him.
I couldn’t see her face before, but she had tears streaming down her face and looked hysterical. I took his phone and made her sit with me while she continued to sob. He was fine. She kept saying, ‘He just wanted us to all die. He doesn’t care if they find us.’ I let her cry on my shoulder for the rest of the drill and then sent her to student services to tell them what happened. She was not punished for slapping him."
"I taught middle school for 12 years. For 10 of those 12 years, we were given very clear instructions on how to lock ourselves in and how to hide, but no instructions regarding what to do if a shooter actually entered the room. It just seemed to be assumed that at that point there was no hope. For 10 years during lockdown drills I would let my kids whisper questions to me to let them have something to focus on other than silence, and to try to calm them as best as I could. As could be expected, almost always someone would ask about what we do if the person actually gets in the room. I would lie and say I would take care of them and would stop the person (which is just not even remotely possible). They knew I was lying, I could see it in their eyes and they could probably see it in mine, but they also knew there was no better answer. It was bleak and heartbreaking every time.
The last two years I taught we were ALICE trained and we had much better strategies and answers for the kids, but the fact that we have let this country become so unsafe that we need ALICE training to just exist in a school is completely disgusting."
"I’m a high school English teacher and not only do we have active shooter drills three times a year, we as teachers have several hours of training twice a year. The alarm for an active shooter is different than a fire alarm, so the students know that this is not a fire drill. The classroom door is locked, classroom door window is blocked out with paper, and if there are windows, blinds are closed. We turn the lights out and students are to be seated in the farthest corner of the classroom from the door and windows. This is often next to impossible if the windows run along an entire side of the classroom. We are then expected to send an email to our school’s private email with names of all students in our classroom. Simply getting them to be quiet and silence their cellphones is a challenge.
There are cops doing random checks on classrooms and that is unsettling; they bang on doors and try to open the doors. But, again, we all know it’s a drill. Drill usually lasts for about 15 minutes, and then there is an all clear. In the past we have not given any warnings to students that there will be a drill, and it has caused havoc with parents receiving text during lockdown drills. Unlike a fire drill, which seems like you are prepping for something that will never happen, these drills feel real. Now parents are emailed that there will be a drill. As a parent I totally get it, but as a teacher, it makes the drills fairly useless.
I feel like none of these precautions are stopping someone armed with an AR-15. The school has several security officers and one armed resource officer. Cameras are all over the building and the front entry requires being buzzed in. I generally feel safe, but I have thought about my survival plans as have my students. After Douglass, I spoke in my classes and students revealed all sorts of plans ranging from piling desks at the door to jumping out windows. I find it bizarre and awful that kids spend time thinking about this. My own children do as well. We were scheduled for a drill yesterday, but there was a school shooting about 30-miles south of us so it was cancelled. The irony is palpable."
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