My efforts to win at the no-win scenario…
I am old enough to remember how “Duck-and-Cover” was supposed to protect my elementary school classmates and I from a Soviet nuclear attack.
Now my students are old enough to “Duck and Cover” to protect themselves from an American attacking their school…
…because every few months, my daughter’s school, like others across the country, conducts a “lockdown” drill to prepare for a school shooting. A coded message comes over the loudspeaker indicating that there’s an intruder, most likely armed and dangerous, in the building. My job as a teacher, now familiar to many Americans thanks to the procedures rehearsed and followed by the heroic educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, is to rush the door, lock it, turn off the lights (to create the illusion of an empty classroom) and corral my students into a corner. There, out of sight, we practice huddling quietly as we would if an armed intruder were trying to shoot us through a doorway or window.
This past Wednesday, as it was apparently at other elementary schools in the local area, including my own daughter’s school, it was “Lockdown” day.
On Tuesday, my grade level team met for the first time since the Newtown shootings. Lockdown procedures, rather than our IB curriculum, become the topic of concern. As often happens with epic-level disasters or circumstances, they only become a topic of importance after they happen, rather than before. As a new teacher at this school, I am admittedly unfamiliar with the procedures, and I need help in learning what’s appropriate at this school site. At my old school, with its stand-alone classroom, my choices were self-explanatory with respect to a Lockdown. (Of course, my final 2 years there were spent in a trailer that could have been at home after Hurricane Katrina. Given its thin walls, and its isolated position on the outskirts of the campus, I could see little protection that it might have provided my students.) But at my new school, with its remants of 1970s pod design, the classrooms open up to a central community area, and the school is split between the upper and primary grade areas, as well as a pod for the administration and the kindergarteners. We are effectively cut off from each other in the event of some sort of emergency.
Says a colleague, K., who has the room next to mine, and whose classroom overlooks the parking lot and is the most exposed, “I think they were on acid when they designed the school.”
My reply, “Well, it was the ’70s.”
Still, she is worried about the ability to see into her classroom during a lockdown, even with the lights turned off. At my team meeting the day before, I expressed the same worry, as my teammates and I discussed the timeline of the Newtown shootings, wondering if the various offices and storage rooms scattered along the periphery of the classroom pods were accessible to us with our keys, and therefore could be locked. Reflecting up on how students, teachers, and staff, were able to find hiding places at Sandy Hook Elementary in such smaller rooms, we reach a grade level agreement to move our kids into the storage rooms and offices in the event of a lockdown. I bring up the idea that we need to “buy” time in the event of such a situation, that the longer it would take for students to be “found”, the better chance local law enforcement would have to get to the school to intervene.
My colleagues’ keys work the doors to the storage room which sits between them. Later on, I am reassured to find that my key will open the RSP room immediately next to my classroom. Unfortunately, we are only 3 classrooms of 75 students, as well as ourselves, there is still a need to find such an evacuation spot for the SDC class, 2 4th grade classrooms, and 3 6th grades. Given that this lockdown is meant to find out how we stand with respect to emergency procedures though, we set aside our initial concerns about trying to find places for everyone, until we know it works for our own classroom of kids.
So on Wednesday morning, before my students arrive, I spend a few moments with my 4th grade colleagues, who have the rooms closest to me, to find out what they’re planning on doing. Both pretty much agree that there’s little they plan on doing beyond “ducking and covering”, because there’s not many places they can move towards. I point out that with the lights out and quiet children, from the outside, the temporary wall between our classrooms does provide some cover when viewed from the outside. K., who has that classroom closest to the school parking lot, and with 2 windows that can be used to enter the room, realizes there’s a corner where she can move her kids to hide them from anyone looking in. I suggest that later, after we’re done, we try to see if curtains are an option. My 5th grade colleagues both have curtains on their room themselves, while I am using some posters. Still, at this point, I move outside myself, switch off the classoom lights and try to see what it might look like from the outside looking in. There are areas where children sit where enough ambient light, even on an overcast morning, allows someone to see in even with the lights out. I make the decision to have that student move into the far corner during “duck and cover”.
Nevertheless, I ask myself if “Duck and Cover” would truly be that effective if a potential shooter choose to enter the school through my door or window. Rather than immediately question that, I decide it best to follow directions during this drill, in order to question the choice later on, if necessary. My aide comes in, at this point, and I brief him about the procedures we will follow.
When I go to pick up the students, as they try to settle in, I immediately cut off the usual insouciance, in order to explain the lockdown procedures the class will follow when it starts. I move from the known to unknown. Most of these kids have matriculated only through this elementary school, but it being the east side of my school district, rather than the west side, I wonder if these kids even know what a lockdown was.
“How many of you have been through a lockdown drill at this school?”
None raise their hands. I find out later that lockdowns have been held in the past, but these kids apparently don’t remember it.
“How many even know what a lockdown is?”
My girl from Norwalk, a boy from Bell Gardens and another from Hawaiian Gardens, all raise their hand. The other kids, local area lifers, are still silent. I explain the lockdown and what it usually means. Normally, in the area, it’s because the local sheriff deputies are out searching for a suspect in a local crime. We can still function normally, more or less, in such a situation. But today is more about the events in Connecticut. While I have avoided getting specific about details about Sandy Hook, I do get specific now, not to scare the kids, per se, but to explain to them the “why” of what we will do. I work very hard at trying to remain calm, and my usual casual humor is replaced by a more serious tone. I want this to go well. The principal then comes on over the intercom and reiterates a great deal of what I had already told the kids. I am hoping that the kids will get the message to treat this with some measure of seriousness.
When the lockdown finally happens, I actually find my hands shaking as I deliver the instruction to get under the desks, and I head over and turn out the lights. So far so good, but slowly, order starts to break down. One kids bangs his head accidentally on one of the desk legs. Others giggle, as they are wont to do during earthquake drills, without heeding my request for as much quiet as they can muster.
All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. — Blaise Pascal
I strive to do my best to not raise my voice as move to the next step, getting the kids into the RSP office. I try to walk around the room in those areas where it is darkest, and I ask the kids to start to crawl, in the dark into the RSP room. Still, several of my students are determined that they have to provide a vocal soundtrack to the drill. My kids move quickly enough to crawl into the RSP office, and I make a mental note about a couple of my students who backed out into the area of the room still lit from outside light, to remind them to move forward under the desk to crawl rather than backwards.
But my aide is getting frustrated as he positions himself at the RSP office door to help guide the student inside. Unlike myself, he is naturally softspoken, but I can see him getting frustrated by the increasing noise level coming out of the RSP office. My goal was try to hide the kids in the office, but with their inability to pipe down, they’ve done nothing but make themselves even more conspicuous. It is all I can do to not throw propriety to the wind and not yell at them to shut up. At this point, the principal, moving through our building to check on statuses, comes by and quietly tries to hush the kids’ giggling and talking. He leaves, my aide and I are dumbfounded when the talking and laughing continue, especially when I see one boy light up his watch because he has to see what the time was.
During these drills, my students are often visibly anxious because they’re afraid of guns and don’t and can’t know if the exercise is just a precaution. We behave as if the alarm were real because it could be real, and so we can become accustomed to remaining calm during a crisis. My students hug one another and exchange nervous glances as we crouch on the floor and I silently mouth words of comfort. Someone begins to whisper until another student hisses, “Shhhhhh,” so any gunman wouldn’t be able to hear us. Our principal goes around checking doors in the eerily quiet hallways to see if teachers have followed protocol, and when he jiggles our doorknob, several students start as if in a horror movie.
My students, for their part, are far from anxious, because there are enough who couldn’t process what “quietly” even means.
When the lockdown is over, the kids head back to their desks. I should debrief, but at this point, I’m looking for seriously methaphorical blood.
I ask T. why he was looking at his watch. He replies that he needed to know what time it was, clueless that he belongs to me until 2:15 pm anyway.
I ask D. why he thought the whole procedure was so funny. All he can do is shrug his shoulders.
S. starts to complain that someone was touching his butt when he looked out the office window, even though there was no compelling reason to look out the window if the point was to hide. My class cynic, G., sarcastically retorts that if S. doesn’t want his butt touched, he shouldn’t look out the office window. (G.’s internalized the Cause-and-Effect lesson I taught earlier this year.)
I am frustrated. My principal enters shortly afterwards and starts to ream the students out himself. He is not happy. I can see this stuff rolling downhill to me and I want to get out of the way, but can’t. He makes it a point that not only could he hear my students from outside, he could tell where they were based on the amount of noise they were making.
“Perfect practice makes perfect execution”, he leaves them.
I ream them again, because they’ve gotten reamed by the principal.
Later, as we debrief the fiasco in the RSP office, my colleague rustles my jimmies by suggesting it was a classroom management issue. I consider, for a moment, ritual suicide to save face. I find my principal, who’s resumed his normal rounds, and apologize for my class’ behavior. Inappropriate humor or not, I volunteer that my kids and I would be willing to distract a shooter in real life. But still, with tensions being as it was, I don’t relish the idea that 1/3 of my students don’t fully comprehend the criticality of making themselves as inconspicuous as they possibly can, which includes putting a muzzle on their insatiable need to conduct a running commentary during a drill that’s meant to be done in near-total silence.
When the kids return from their enrichment classes, I try to tear a new one out of what’s left of them for having been called out by another teacher. But I stop myself. I point out the ultimate need for such an exercise. The state has entrusted their safety to well-being to me, and my responsibility is to keep them in a safe setting to the fullest extent that I can. And when they choose not to follow instructions, they put not just themselves at risk, but also their classmates, and the rest of the school. I point out what I had shared with my grade level team the previous day, that the point of the drill was to see how long we could last in silent hiding. Sadly, that’s not what had gone down.
I then praise one of my boys, who is normally chatty, distracted, and moving constantly throughout the room, as probably the one kid who “got it”. L. tells me that he treated the exercise like a game of “Soldier” (I call it “Army Guy”, but most boys seem to gravitate to it at some point in childhood), and that he wanted to be as quiet as he could, just as if he had been playing that game.
I remark that the kids might have done better during the drill had they decided to treat it as they might a game of hide-and-seek. But then, I back off, and reassure them that I can better keep them safe if they understand that in any emergency situation, since as fifth graders, they should start to know better by now, to listen absolutely to my instructions. They owe that to themselves, as well as their parents. I tell them that they have to trust in me just like my daughter Kate has to trust in her kindergarten teacher, or the kids and parents in the classroom of V.’s mom (who teaches in Long Beach USD) have to trust in her. Then, I move on to what was left of my instructional time, hoping that today’s morning lesson, while painful, would sink in.
After the lockdown drills are over, I try to reassure my students that their classrooms are unlikely to be overtaken by armed attackers. I do a short lesson on probability and the very remote chance that any of them will ever be involved in such an incident.
That evening, I arrive on Kate’s campus to pick her up. Unlike my school, which is surrounded by a chain link fence around all the buildings, her district’s schools are wide open around the classroom. It is not unlike the way in which schools were in the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up in that same area when I was in elementary school. I wonder what could happen on such a campus. As we walk out, I ask her about her day. She volunteers that they had a lockdown drill at school.
Then, perfectly, Kates recites, in her remarkable ability to mimic what she hears, exactly what her lockdown instructions had been from her teacher.
Even my kindergartner had been better at a Lockdown drill than I had been.