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When The New Normal In Schools Includes Lockdowns

“Mom, I did just what you said to do during our drill. I was quiet as a mouse.”

Her voice came over the PA system loud and commanding. “This is a lockdown, please follow all necessary procedures.” Immediately every door was shut and locked, lights turned off, and the window shades were pulled down. We sat in darkness. The laughter and chatter that usually fills the hallway disappeared in a split second. Everything was dead silent, and we waited for the voice to return, telling us that it was only a drill.

Since the Sandy Hook massacre, there have been 231 school shootings. As a social worker/clinician practicing in a large school building, we are regularly confronted with the possibility of violence making its way to our campus. The increase in shootings has dramatically changed how schools handle safety procedures. Gone are the days of simple fire drills, now most institutions routinely practice lockdowns and active shooter simulations.

Each day, schools are acutely aware of the possibilities that can unfold. It’s not uncommon for many faculty and staff to carry phones at all times. I carry my wristlet, which has my smartphone and a backup disposable phone; if the battery goes out in one, I can still call the police with the other if necessary.

When we moved into a new office in my school, they offered me a desk by a window. “No,” I replied shaking my head, “not that one. We should all be careful with that seat. If someone shoots at the school, the bullet could come right through that big window. It’s too exposed.”

My colleagues stared at me like I was totally paranoid, but maybe it was a premonition.

Seven months later, bullets ricocheted off the same window as my coworkers dove under their desks. It wasn’t a school shooter, but rather, a violent man settling a score with an enemy on the sidewalk outside. The intent may have been different, but the anxiety and chaos that ensued were the same.

After a tragedy, we are always given the same message: “We won’t give in to fear. We will not let them win.” The words are meant to empower us, but do they? What is the real toll on this generation of children growing up in a world of violence, drills, evacuations, and awareness of mass shootings?

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]After a tragedy, we are always given the same message: ‘We won’t give in to fear. We will not let them win.’ The words are meant to empower us, but do they?[/quote]

Researchers have found that deadly school violence has a significant impact on a student’s attendance rates, cognitive skills, behavior, and math and English test scores. School violence can shatter a child’s sense of normalcy and can have a long-term impact on their well-being. The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder reports that up to 77% of students who witness a school shooting can develop PTSD. As Eitan D. Schwarz, a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University, explains, “Terror shatters our bubble and psychologically injures us when we live through or witness intense fear and helplessness. Some people cannot restore their ‘bubble’ within a few weeks after the event because their brains have been permanently reset in an activated state.”

In response to the growing number of school shootings, some districts have installed everything from surveillance cameras, panic buttons, bulletproof doors, key-card entry systems and bulletproof whiteboards. In California, Valley Vista High School installed bullet-resistant doors and locks. In New York City, St. Elizabeth Catholic Academy also adopted stricter safety procedures and now has bulletproof walls, two sets of deadbolt locks on each classroom door, and a central surveillance system that stays connected to the New York City Police Department.

Other schools in New York are now being guarded with a new type of “protective glass” that aims to stop a shooter from gaining entry if they try to fire through a window or panel. (This is how the Sandy Hook shooter entered the building.)

Photo by Phil Roeder/Flickr.

But while some districts are making these improvements, there is still a growing sense among school officials that these potentially life-saving safety measures must be implemented by districts across the country, but most aren’t acting fast enough.

“What school officials have to do is adopt what the banks are doing, what the police stations are doing,” Ron Triebels, co-founder of Safer Schools For America, argued in a 2015 interview. “Why aren’t we doing that for our kids?”

School shootings can happen anytime, anywhere, but many continue to struggle with accepting this and still think of these attacks as isolated incidents. While the gun control debate rages on and the majority of congressional Republicans remain against most common sense gun control plans or limiting access (even to potential terrorists), the vast majority of schools are leaving themselves vulnerable — even as students continue to be harmed.

Since 2013, over 66 children under the age of 12 and 85 teenagers have died in mass shootings. It shouldn't have been a surprise when my son told me they would have a lockdown drill at his school. I reassured him that it’s something that all schools have to practice and reminded him of the things he needs do: “Always follow your teacher’s directions, line up very quietly, go to your designated drill spot, and stay away from the front door. Do not try to peek out of the room or play around and make noise.”

I needed him to know that during a drill he must stay still and not be the spirited, playful, adorable child he is because I don’t want a potential shooter to see or hear him and his classmates. But, of course, I didn’t say that last part out loud. Instead, I kept the conversation focused on following his teacher’s directions and being extra quiet. I said it over and over to be sure he knew that it’s important.

After practicing the lockdown procedures, my son told me, “Mom, I did just what you said to do during our drill. I was quiet as a mouse.” I knelt down and hugged my sweet boy, kissing his cheeks. I told him I am proud of him, and we pinky swore that he would remember to do the same thing next time.

Today, in this moment, he is safe. Will tomorrow be the same?

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