The first time I participated in a school lock-down, it wasn’t a drill.
It was 2001–just before 9/11–and I was student teaching in a sophomore English class. My classroom faced the main road and there were five or six large windows spanning the length of the room. My cooperating teacher and I got word that the local bank branch just down the block from the school had been robbed by a rifle-wielding gunman and police were in pursuit. As a precaution, we were to pull down the window shades and lock our doors in case the fugitive attempted to take refuge (or hostages) at the school.
My students started getting up from their seats as I casually lowered the shades.
“They’ve got guns!” One girl said, noting the armed and ready officers already standing guard outside, black rifles pointed across their bodies, tense and watchful.
I just kept pulling down window shades and tried to distract them with a half-fictional personal story. Anything to get them away from the windows and any potential stray bullets that might be fired. It was terrifying to think that a gunman was on the run in our neighborhood and that we might be vulnerable to a gun attack. Instead of feeding their fear or giving in to mine, I kept moving with the day’s lesson.
Eventually the man was captured and life went on. I still think about that day and how quickly the world seemed to crumble in the weeks and months that followed. Lock-down became policy, then procedure, then annual practice alongside fire drills, severe weather drills, and earthquake drills.
As a teacher, I think about lock-down and school safety every school year:
- What’s the best way to cover the three large windows that allow me to see into the hallway, but might let a shooter look in to find us?
- How should I deal with the broken window shade that maintenance taped at the top to keep the heavy roll from falling onto our heads? There’s a four-foot wide and eighteen-inch tall section of window that cannot be covered by a shade. Should I paper over it?
- If we needed to escape through the windows, will they shatter if I smash them with a chair? Do I have a screw driver that will allow me to remove a window from its casing so that students can fit through the smaller openings?
- What’s the safest corner of the room to avoid gunfire or sight lines? How many twelve year-old children can I expect to fit into that corner before we run out of room and are so many sitting ducks?
- What do I do if an attacker shoots out the glass in my door or beside it and reaches in to unlock the door from the inside? Where do we run without compromising the interconnected classrooms on either side, which (by the way) have no locks or securing mechanisms, so that if one classroom is compromised, the entire wing is compromised?
- How quickly could I move my file cabinet to barricade the door? Would I realistically have enough seconds to do it by myself?
I think about what I would do if an attacker came into my room–what I would do, what I would say. I think about the futility of buzzers and plastic ID name tags whose only use (as far as I can tell) is to help police identify the bodies once it’s all over.
Then I think about how absurd it is that I have to think about these things at all as a regular part of my job as a teacher in a democracy such as this one. This is not a border land of some long-standing war. This is not Gaza or Belfast or Tel Aviv or Bosnia. Why is it okay for American children to practice what to do in case of a shooting?
Why is it that the rhetoric about teachers in America says that I am a union thug, a moocher from the lower third of my class when it comes to academic performance. I am not to be trusted as a professional, but managed, micromanaged, tested, and measured to mastery. I can’t even get access to worthy YouTube videos because I can’t be trusted to use internet access responsibly, yet I hear governors, mayors, and other political leaders saying I should be trusted with a gun. I should be armed and dangerous so that if an assailant makes it past the buzzers and paper-covered windows, I can stand my ground and kill before I or my students are killed.
It’s too much to ask.
It’s time for lawmakers to find their spines and protect American citizens from the violent, irrational behavior. Don’t hand me a gun, wish me luck on my VAM score, and go back to your office and shut the door. Don’t make me personally responsible for one more thing about a child’s life and future.
Am I the only one who finds this maddening?