The twenty-four children stand silently, motionlessly, pressed together in the small office built years ago as an observation room within the classroom to monitor troubled students, designed for two or three adults to monitor through the two-way mirror. My kids are pretty good: gifted and high achieving 5th graders, the big kids in the school, the smart kids. One breathes a heavy sigh, but there’s no need for me to shoot her the evil eye. The other kids do it for me. If the bad guy sees movement, if the bad guy hears, we’re dead.
So, we wait. It’s a large school, with six buildings to be checked by the support staff. It takes awhile to check every door to ensure it’s locked and that no students are in sight. Once the drill was called, the rule was to lock out students not in the classroom, those who left to use the restroom or sent on an errand. I am grateful none of my babies are out of the room at the time. After twenty minutes or so, the announcement comes over the intercom system. All is clear. We’ve done a great job! We return to class, and resume the day’s learning.
Soon after, teachers in the school and in the district start talking. Others around the nation spread their messages of concern online. There’s talk of teachers who, caught up in the fervor of the moment, said horrible things to the children. “Hush! Do you want to be the reason we all die?!”
A few parents complain about children who wet or soiled themselves during the drill, and some who were simply frightened by the drill. The response from the schools is that if the choice is between a child having an embarrassing situation or becoming the victim of a crazed shooter, the parents should see sense and be grateful that we’re going the extra mile to protect their little ones. Sure, it was only a drill, but the point of drills is to be prepared for the real events.
If there were any reason in that argument, I’d be the first to use it.
I would happily terrify children, and be only tangentially concerned about the psychological aftermath, if there were any chance that this methodology was likely to save lives. However, the truth of the matter is that it is much more likely to increase the death toll.
Like I said, my students are smart. We can’t simply resume math lessons after an experience like that. They have questions, obvious ones, like what the point of it all was. It’s a sensitive conversation, and in soothing tones, I explain that while it’s statistically highly unlikely that we’ll ever have to face an armed killer, school shootings are on the rise. We want to be prepared.
When the mass shootings occurred at the hands of a mentally ill gunman in Connecticut, a quick-thinking teacher hid all her students in closets and cabinets, and told the shooter they were at gym class. The shooter killed her and left, leaving the hidden children undiscovered and unharmed physically. We remember her as a brave and smart hero, and rightfully so.
In the aftermath of tragedy, there’s an understandable need to want to do something: to comfort survivors and mourners, to let them know we feel their pain, and to prepare ourselves so that we are ready should the unthinkable become our personal reality. Unfortunately, the tendency is often to react rather than to reflect.
Painfully little logic was employed in determining what we should do. Objections were met with the insistence that doing something was imperative, whether or not it made any sense or needlessly frightened children, reminding me of the days when we had decided that if the Russians really did drop atomic bombs on us, our best course of action was to hide under desks.
Immediately following the Connecticut shooting the talk focused on security. How do we keep the bad guys out? The four-foot fence surrounding most of my school was intended to keep children from running into traffic during recess, not to thwart marauders with automatic weaponry. High fences, buzzer systems, and increased police presence cost money.
Besides, even if we put a dome over every school in the nation, that only addresses outsiders trying to get on to the premises. Perhaps one of the reasons these discussions weren’t taking place prior to the Sandy Hook massacre despite numerous school shootings over the years is that the vast majority of school shootings were committed at the hands of students.
What then? Again, we could react, forcing all students and staff to enter only through one monitored location complete with metal detectors; but it would take costly resources, be an enormous daily time sap, and would only provide the illusion of security while perpetuating the concept that the children and staff should all live in fear.
The decision was therefore made to follow the example of the teacher who hid her children. It had worked. Lives were saved. We could practice this procedure so that we would be ready, with many breathing a bit easier at a returning sense of control for at least having a plan.
It took my little bright bulbs seconds to see the flaw. Seeing one empty classroom and being told it is empty because the children are elsewhere makes sense. There are times when a classroom or even several classrooms are empty. The heroine in CT who saved her students already knew there was a shooter on the school grounds. It was an impulse decision, a gamble that blissfully paid off; but it could have gone the other way.
Seeing all the classrooms empty on a school day, with parking lots packed with teacher cars, an eerie silence filling the halls, recess equipment abandoned outdoors, half-eaten lunches littering cafeteria tables, books open to lessons on desks…that’s not deception. That’s a Twilight Zone episode.
No matter how stoned or mentally ill the assassin might be, it would take a very short time to determine that, of course, everyone hasn’t abandoned ship: they’re hiding. The animalistic instincts that kick in when in fear are fight or flight. Dozens of kids and teachers crammed into closets and bathrooms leaves no chance of either. In fact, since most shooters are students, it creates the perfect scenario for someone wishing to do harm, knowing his or her own school and its policies.
All we are doing is saving the shooter bullets.
They wish to remain unnamed, but many teachers urged me to write this. Actually, one retiring teacher insisted I write it in her name to avoid my taking heat for it. It was a sweet gesture, but my words should have my name; if only because, otherwise, everything I’ve ever tried to teach my students about ethics would be hypocritical. Moreover, I don’t see it as particularly controversial so much as an opinion on a situation of concern to us all.
A lot of us would like to see this plan revisited as an ineffective approach that at best causes children undue stress, and at worst could cost them their lives. None of us want to lose our jobs. Teaching children is a passion and delight. We all want to protect the children, with the sticking point being how to accomplish that.
It’s not always the case, based on stories I hear from colleagues, but I genuinely respect and admire my administrators. This has nothing to do with them. Like the teachers, they’re following directives. Even more unlikely, I am a fan of my district’s superintendent. He seems like a good guy who, like the rest of us, has the children’s best interests at heart. It’s not as though all the school districts in the land had superintendents with the same brainstorm. One person put it out there as a suggestion and everyone jumped on it wanting to have that something to do to that was perceived as regaining control. Answering the question of what we should be doing instead is trickier, but not impossible.
Some of my students got a kick out of the idea of me playing Dirty Harry, having my own gun and saving lives. Frankly, to me, that goes to the underlying problem that we have too many guns in this country, can access them too easily, and think solving gun problems with guns rather than removing guns or severely restricting access to them is a logical solution.
On a personal level, being an American, I tend to get a bit of a shameful rush out of the fantasy of protecting my students with a gun of my own. “Hurt MY babies?! I don’t THINK so! Take THAT, ya filthy animal!”
However, knowing myself, it’s much more likely that I’d freeze in a catatonic state of shock and accomplish nothing more than adding to the gunman’s arsenal. Or, a child would find the gun in an incident unrelated to an outsider shooting, and kill or injure self or others with it, either accidentally or on purpose; or that I wouldn’t be able to access or load it in time.
In any case, the vengeance/hero fantasy illustrates our national ethos that has us cheering at the end of movies when the bad guy who outrageously used weaponry to kill people gets his due--by being killed by weaponry. We don’t go to action movies hoping that in the end the sociopath will receive the proper mental health and medications necessary for rehabilitation. We’re looking for explosions, body counts, revenge…not peaceful resolution.
The gun argument has been done ad nauseam, with those opposed to gun ownership having no realistic way of stopping it; and gun owners insisting like the owners of pet tigers that, sure, tigers are inherently dangerous, but that they are in a special category of responsible tiger owners who respect their ways, dismissing it as an anomaly when the tigers try to bite them and close down their Vegas acts.
But, it did surprise me that there wasn’t a greater outcry when Congress voted down legislation that the overwhelming majority of Americans, including gun owners, supported. Sane people who interpret the Second Amendment to the Constitution as granting them the personal right to bear arms promote background checks to see if people wanting them are unstable or criminally dangerous, not wanting to be lumped in with their likes. Congress keeping in step with special interests and not passing legislation that at least made a token gesture towards wanting to keep guns out of the wrong hands is more chilling than individuals using guns inappropriately ever could be. So, we focus on the aftermath rather than causes of shootings.
We want to dismiss the shooters as inherently evil, not take the time and resources to address the truly frightening reality that we are aware of the conditions that lead to mental illness and ease of access to firearms, yet do absolutely nothing about it.
We have students who give us the strong sense that something is desperately wrong, that they could be dangerous. Everyone on death row went to school somewhere, and at some point along the way, their teachers tried to alert authorities of their fears. It’s seen as dangerous territory for teachers. We’re not trained in mental health, and have no basis for making diagnoses. Even suggesting that a child might be dangerous--because he draws pictures of his teacher lying dead with the smiling stick-figure self-depiction of the child standing over her with a knife dripping blood--is dangerous career-wise for the teacher.
Some of those kids have parents who vehemently refuse to believe their child could be the next shooter. Others are aware, and terrified in only the way parents of a troubled child can relate to, but lack resources to know what to do to prevent that chilling possibility in their own babies. There’s little sympathy for the parents whose child turns the gun on himself after killing others, which must be an unimaginable hell in and of itself.
When suspicions of children having serious mental health issues are supported by schools, the response is usually punitive, as though suspending a child for a few days will send the strong message that threats or pictures of killing are “inappropriate.” Expulsion is even worse. At least if we have an eye on the troubled child, there’s a chance, however small, of being able to reach and help the child.
Given our current directives and strict disciplinary matrices, there’s not much that we can do, even when all parties agree that what is necessary is intensive mental health treatment. Getting those services becomes a quagmire of bureaucracy and paperwork, eventually leading at most to an overworked psychologist split between numerous schools seeing the child once a week for half an hour or so. There used to be schools designed to handle the needs of children with serious behavioral problems, but budget cuts shut them down. If we want to be able to say we’re taking these issues seriously, it can’t just be lip service.
These are big problems requiring significant paradigms and investments in society, not reactions to surprise attacks after the fact.
That gets us back to what we should do at the moment that a shooter begins terrorizing a school, that need for control, for that serenity of denial that we’re doing all we can in the midst of chaos. When we resigned ourselves to living in fear rather than trying to improve relations with our enemies, hiding under the desk was still a laughably bad plan. Similarly, If we’re not going to accept as obvious the need for improved mental health treatment and only nonviolent and sane people being able to easily access guns, hiding from shooters in closets and bathrooms is no improvement over those days of cold war bomb drills.
True, most kids who did go through those bomb drills of squatting under desks went on to lead relatively normal lives. Some may have had lingering memories of fear for years after, but most probably look back on it as so much silliness, laughing along with comedians mocking the then perceived impervious nature of pressboard and the wisdom of spending one’s last moments on Earth in an uncomfortable and undignified position. The big difference there is that in all my years as a student, no one ever did drop a bomb on or near a school in the United States. The latest generations of our students see school shootings on the news. They live in fear.
It is logical to live in fear. There are numerous serious considerations affecting all of us. The problem is that fear has real physical and psychological effects that are counterproductive to finding solutions. When we had colored warnings after 9/11 that escalated from yellow to orange based on information government officials could not make us privy to nor give us any direction on what we should do based on them, the message was solely, “Live in fear. Be even more afraid today than you were yesterday. All is lost. And now, let’s take a look at sports!”
In the movie The American President, an advisor tells the president that the important thing is not to make it look like we’re panicking. Michael Douglas, playing the president, retorts, “See, and I think the important thing is actually not to BE panicking.” That’s my take on things.
If we are to accept that we are powerless over the big changes we would need to enact to reduce school shootings, at the very least we can recognize in this instance that we don’t have a real answer to what we should do when they occur. Creating a ghost town with children corralled for the shooter’s ease isn’t it.
A few teachers hiding their children just may be the best course of action, at least until the coast is clear. Obviously, we’re not going to institute a lottery to determine who lives or dies. I mean that the decision should be one the teacher has made at the moment under the specific circumstances he or she is facing. That’s the answer to what we should do if our students are in real peril, evaluate the best course of action based on the situation.
It’s hard to know how we each of us will respond if the unthinkable occurs at our schools, and each case is different. Fight or flight is real. Some school staff might try to fight. Telling children to run and hide far away goes against every parental and teacher instinct, but might be the best of unbearable choices, with finding young terrified children hidden under cars a joyous relief compared with the prospect of them being killed. Getting away from danger is a primal instinct. It just makes for an impossible practice drill.
If there were a bomb threat, we would want to move everyone in an orderly fashion to a designated area away from the school. The understanding is that the threat is contained to the physical location of the school, making bomb drills to practice logistics reasonable, even if the message of fearing the unlikely is still being promoted unnecessarily. People who just want attention or want to get out of an exam make bomb threats, at least until they find out how sourly the FBI frowns upon that sort of thing. People who want real bombs to go off don’t usually give notice. Still, at least it makes sense to want to get the children away from the danger, and practicing that does help with the sense of order and control.
If we were to have drills for shooters on campus that similarly involved getting kids off school grounds, having them moved to the same concentrated location presents the same problem putting them in closets does. The teachers and staff would have to move the kids to myriad locations away from the school. It’s not practical for most of us.
If our choices are to live in fear or not live in fear, I choose the latter. The simple truth is that we really don’t know how exactly we’ll all act in a moment of crisis until the moment comes. If we have the grace to think rationally at all, what we’ll do will be based on the circumstances as they arise.
Until then, I’d rather not go through the farce of pretending we have a handle on things. I will. There will be another drill. I will command the children to silent stillness once more, locking out any unfortunate enough to be out of the room at the time the drill is called. I really do love teaching children and don’t want to lose my job. I just really wish someone with common sense would come along and realize that this isn’t the way to go.