This morning I was watching the third hour of Today as the hosts were reflecting on the latest tragic shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Willie Geist contributed a thought which lent me pause. I am paraphrasing here, but Mr. Geist commented that high school students today have to do lock down drills like we did fire drills when we were in school. As a high school social studies teacher for the past twenty-two years, I know this to be true, but with some exceptions.
In the upstate New York public high school where I teach, we are mandated by the state to do a specific amount of lock down drills per school year. I am not an administrator, so fortunately I do not have to worry about the timing of these drills. I do however, have to facilitate the lock downs with my classes. And upon reflection, I believe that while the nature of the scheduling of a lock down drill is similar to a fire drill, the emotional toll it has on my students is entirely different.
When my class and I participate in a fire drill, unless it is rainy or cold, the students are typically happy to comply. I believe they view the fire drill as a welcome break from class, a chance to go outside, talk with their friends, and check their phones. There may be a few students who are not comfortable with fire drills, but this is usually for very personal reasons.
Lock down drills do not play out the same way as fire drills. Lock down drills stimulate anxiety. Lock down drills are uncomfortable. Lock down drills are silent. Lock down drills have us practice what to do if someone in our school is trying to kill us. Lock down drills are followed by many student questions.
On days when we have a lock down drill, I know my planned lesson will most likely be scratched because my class will want to debrief after the drill. I always allow my students this voice. What we ask our students to do in lock downs drills is scary, even for high school students. We require them in the wake of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Parkland to practice what to do in case our school faces a similar tragedy. Lock down drills force us to recognize that we are vulnerable. I see this awareness in the eyes of my students as they silently wait for the drill to be over. Their faces tell me that they are thinking what would they do if this situation were real. I see their hands hover over the pocket where their phone is located. I see their glances towards the door and windows. I can tell they are visually searching the room for a make shift weapon they would use against a shooter. As they look at each other, I fear that they are wondering who would live and who might die.
Once the drill is over and they are released to their seats the hands raise immediately. They want to share their escape plans, they want to know what I would do if a shooter broke into the classroom, they want statistical analysis of whether or not this will happen to our school, and most of all they want reassurance. They want to know that they are safe and I so badly want to tell them that they have nothing to worry about. However, I will not lie to my students and know I can’t make that promise.
Instead, I try to empower them. I remind them of the social presence and network they have on their social media. They will most likely be the first to see the warning signs or cries for help of a peer that might want to inflict violence on our school. I review the importance of See Something, Say Something and reiterate that they have the power to do so. I remind them that they are surrounded by teachers, counselors, administrators, and other adults who will take them seriously and do everything they can to help.
Finally, I tell my students how much I genuinely respect and care for each and every one of them, then privately I pray that the senseless gun violence in this nation will end and our children will be safe.