Paranoid or Preventative?
It's a typical day in classrooms across America. Students turn in last night's homework, take their seats, open their notebooks, and settle in for a lesson in handwriting. Or calculating the diameter of a circle. Or avoiding being shot by a madman.
Schools from elementary to high school are now putting students through "lockdown drills" to rehearse what to do if someone starts shooting up the campus. Some have been practicing like this since Columbine; others only began after the Sandy Hook school massacre in December.
The drills usually begin with a loudspeaker announcement from the principal, after which teachers lock and/or barricade their classroom doors, close any blinds, and instruct their students to huddle in a corner and remain absolutely silent for 10, 15, or even 30 minutes. Sometimes staff members bang threateningly on classroom doors or fire blanks in the hall to add realism. One school had students lay down "dead" with fake blood.
"I cried the first time my son came home and told me about these," says a friend of mine. "They told him, 'If you're in the bathroom or hall when the classroom doors are locked, find somewhere else to hide because the teachers won't let you in.' He was 9."
I'm as fully freaked out by school shootings as anyone else — as we all ought to be. Like you, I read the accounts of Newtown with my hands over my mouth, tears rolling down my face, my mind working futilely to make sense of it.
But is this really where we are as a society? Simulating senseless violence for our kids? If it sickened us that Sandy Hook's children had to cower and quake in broom closets, then why doesn't it sicken us to send our kids in there again ... "just in case"?
These aren't the measured, calmly-exit-the-building procedures of a fire drill. They're the terrified, let's-pretend-we've-got-this-under-control flailings of a duck-and-cover atom-bomb drill. ("Like that would have helped!" recalls a friend who lived through those. "All it did was make us all believe nuclear war was imminent and inevitable.")
Where's the line between prudent and paranoid? Between equipped and unhinged? If we put our kids through these preposterous paces, will it guarantee no one else can ever harm them? I'm angry that we've let anomalies persuade us to live in fear — and to drape our kids in it.
My friend who works in law enforcement says I'm in denial that these dangers exist. There were, in fact, nine school shootings in the U.S. in 2012, and there have been eight already this year. "I want my kids to feel as if they have a say in their own safety," he says, "to be courageous, to be able to act."
I see his point. I spent time learning CPR, though I've never had to use it and hope I never will. Our kids learn about safe sex in school and the dangers of drugs. Is this just more modern teen know-how?
I spoke to an 8-year-old girl who said lockdown drills aren't scary. They make her feel safer "because if somebody actually did it, and we hadn't practiced, we probably wouldn't know what to do."
There's so much I don't know about the world after Sandy Hook — so much I obviously didn't know about the world before Sandy Hook. I'm unsure of how to fix any of it. All I can do is start with what I do know and work backward from there. And what I'm certain of, even in a world where deranged people shoot holes in our certainty every day, is that this small piece of the solution — this teaching our children to put down their pencils and hide from imagined psychopaths in the bunkers that used to be their learning environments — is wrong.