[*Today The New York Times published this article. It is worth including here.}
When lockdowns become the norm, we have lost our way. New Jersey began implementing its “School Preparedness and Emergency Planning Drills” in 2007. This was part of a national movement to ensure school population safety. The last update to CNN’s “US School Violence Fast Facts” occurred on Monday, February 19, 2018, five days after the rampage that ended with 17 more dead at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, reminding us that response-to-violence plans are not the answer. Yesterday students across the country reiterated that message. On March 24, 2018, citizens will take to the streets again to protest gun violence.
When I was a student in a small neighborhood K-8 school, the larger world cast its shadow as well. We had bomb drills to prepare for a possible nuclear attack. The missile crisis was real. Some of my neighbors were reinforcing their garages with sandbags. Everything felt tentative despite my parents’ reassurance. As a school, we would march down to the three basement gyms. There in rows, we’d sit side-by-side on the cement floor, bow our heads and create protective caps with our overlapping hands. It’s almost comic in retrospect, but desperation …what do we do in the face of the seemingly intractable?
I remember the new-school-year orientation in August that, for the first time, included active shooter training, and comprehensive lockdown procedures and the particulars of what such policies would mean for our small, K-8 elementary school, set in the center of a bucolic beach town. The message was clear: no place is safe. Our initial practice included only teachers and staff in a building soon-to-be teeming with students. Knowing that this was a drill, a practice, in no way altered its strangeness, its gravity. Colleagues and I cowered behind bookshelves and cabinets, rooms dark and silent, until a violent jiggle of the door handle confirmed that we had secured the lock. That sound made it all too real.
However, the novel becomes familiar. Monthly drills lead to complacence, and as my students and I crouched behind bookshelves, backs against the sturdy yet collapsible wall divider that separated them from peers with backs pressed against the other side, the routine of one more safety ritual lost its power. We’d chat quietly, joke. I was the worst offender; my role as a leader required that I maintain the solemn tone. I didn’t always. One day, near dismissal, the announcement came, but not over the speakers as it usually did. This time, in a voice we didn’t recognize, the telephone speaker conveyed the message. Just this small departure from the expected created a different reaction. This time there was silence as the kids scrambled to take cover. I locked the door, my heart racing. The silence was deep, fear visible on these young teen faces. We waited. Through the partially closed blinds, we could see shadows moving on the field outside. We waited. The harsh rattle of the door knob came but was not followed by the “all clear” we’d come to expect.
How long we waited, I do not know. It seemed like forever. When the words, “This has been a drill” filled the room, we breathed relief together. Afterwards we talked about what made this experience different. One of the students said, “So that’s what it would feel like if it was real.” I thought about his words later after they had headed home. I have no idea what it would feel like if “it” were real. I only hope these lessons our kids are learning lead in a new direction.