The Chilling Reality of School Lockdown Drills: We Hate Them, We Need Them

kid with head buried in arms
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"I don't know if I can ever bring kids into this messed up world," a childless, 22-year-old friend told me after the tragic shooting in Las Vegas. I remembered saying those exact words after watching planes crash into the Twin Towers on 9/11. And yet, I went on to bring two kids into this messed up world, who are now both in school, and out of my protective grasp for hours each day.

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I don't have to tell you, parents of elementary school kids, what it feels like to kiss your sweetie goodbye in the drop-off line and shortly thereafter get a message saying the entire school is on lockdown. The panic-inducing lockdown email is one of the modern rites of passage for today's parents. And each time it happens, it's safe to assume Google never sees so many "How to homeschool" queries.

When I look back on school safety and the drills we had when I was in growing up, I remember only one: a fire drill. I found it to be a rare occurrence, and weirdly exciting. What kid didn't want an out from doing times tables, even if it was in the name of a hypothetical life-threatening incident? Standing on the soccer field with the entire school felt oddly exhilarating, and the once-a-year experience would surely make for impressive dinnertime fodder that night. But in today's messed up world, it seems like kids are preparing for Armageddon on the daily, and for a parent, it's hard to cope.

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A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office revealed that nearly two-thirds of all US schools perform some kind of "active-shooter" drill to help kids and teachers learn how to handle an armed intruder entering the school. In thinking about my own kids, it hit me that I didn't exactly know what kinds of drills were being done at my son's elementary school. So I asked a school administrator and was stunned by what she told me.

"We do lockdowns, fire drills and 'shelter in place,'" the school secretary said. "For lockdown and 'shelter in place,' they are in a classroom, the lights are turned off, and the teacher usually pulls them off to one side of the classroom. Somebody walks them through 'this is what's going on,' and if you're outside, you go into the first classroom available."

Whoa. Imagining my 10-year-old son huddled in the corner of a dark, silent classroom gave me chills. "When did you notice the uptick of all of these drills?" I pressed, thinking surely the Sandy Hook shooting -- and others from the past five years -- had informed the list.

"I've been at the school since it opened, for 15 years, and we've done these same drills for 15 years," she said. "The difference is that now they're mandated, and done more often." I did not expect her answer. I was shocked that these new-to-me drills weren't part of a post–Sandy Hook era.

Schools have always been in the business of protecting our kids. Even in the 1950s, schools did "duck and cover" drills, preparing students for a possible atomic bomb attack. The difference now is that our kids aren't preparing for an unlikely crisis scenario. Mass shootings that used to seem like they could never happen in our town are now a common occurrence across the nation. In fact, just recently I spent four hours locked upstairs in my own house with my kids after two people were shot to death on my street. I can tell you that my kids and I -- and even my pets -- felt every ounce of stress and fear that accompanies these events. As did the sweet neighbor girls who begged to sleep in their parents' bed that night. And my son's best friend, who was so panicked that he couldn't go to school the next day.

Drills vs. real life horror are two different things, but after hearing about how many drills are taking place at school, I couldn't help but wonder if kids find it traumatizing. I asked a friend who's a principal on the East Coast. "I actually think doing drills routinely -- we do 12 fire drills and three lockdown drills per year -- helps reduce anxiety," she told me. "I take the drills ultra-seriously and am so real with our kids about why we do them. It saddens me, but I know that one of the ways to keep my kids safe is for us to have muscle memory around what to do in an emergency situation."

Muscle memory, knowing exactly what to do and where to go if the worst-case scenario becomes reality, because you've practiced it a million times before. That point of view was new to me. I had been in the mindset that "more drills = more panic." But of course giving the kids (and faculty) a thoughtful plan of action helps them to feel empowered about something they have no control over. I think most parents just hope their school is riding that fine, important line between preparing kids adequately without scarring them for life. But what about kids who are more sensitive?

I have a friend whose fifth-grade daughter loses sleep at night wondering if there's going to be a drill the next day. Her mom told me, "We understand the need to do the drills but I don't think they should be done once a month. When we were in school it was no big deal. Now I feel like they are preparing our kids for battle or something."

Another friend told me, "Each time one of my children gets the desk right beside the door, it causes anxiety. If they are supposed to hide under the desk and be still and quiet, in their minds they will also be the first to go if someone came into the class and started shooting."

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It begs the question, can we prepare kids to know what to do if the worst should happen without significantly altering how they operate in the world? It seems that the answer depends on the child and his or her unique psyche, as illustrated by another mom friend who shared, "My kids' school had a lockdown two weeks ago. There was an armed suspect nearby -- helicopters, police, the whole shebang. It was happening at drop-off and I didn't know about it until an hour later, but all students who arrived at that time were kept in a room together so they didn't have to walk outside the classrooms. The classrooms were locked and lights turned off. My kids were hardly aware that anything was happening."

To say that I wish these drills weren't necessary feels like a gross understatement. It burns me up that they are. On the days when another school shooting makes the news, I want the balls-to-the-wall preparation. But most days I just want a time machine to take me back to the '80s, to the innocent fire drill days when my mom's biggest concern for me was whether I liked my perm or not.

These school drills exist for a good reason, albeit a depressing one. What currently helps me keep it together at drop-off -- while I watch the back of my son slowly disappear inside his school that will hopefully not turn into a combat zone that day -- is looking around at the school staff, out there in those red safety vests, directing traffic and kids, taking their jobs seriously. Keeping a school full of children safe is not a new idea to these dedicated faculty. These people have taken bullets for our children, and sadly, will continue to.

Ultimately, our children are in good hands. But the fact that they and their teachers have to prepare for these threats at all is something I'll never be able to make peace with.

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