Guns, schools and the most important unplanned lesson for teachers

Students walk freely about the American University Campus Near the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, shortly after a lockdown was lifted. The campus in the city’s northwest section went on lockdown just before 8 p.m. Wednesday following a report of a man with a gun. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Students walk freely about the American University  campus after a lockdown was lifted Wednesday night.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The American University community in the nation’s capital was on lockdown for some time on Wednesday night after a man with a gun was spotted on campus. Here is a post about how one faculty member and her class handled the situation — and the larger issue of whether and how teachers are prepared to deal with such situations. It was written by Sarah Irvine Belson, dean of American University’s School of Education, Teaching & Health, and executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Education.

By Sarah Irvine Belson

American University was locked down on Wednesday night when a person with a gun was spotted on campus at the same time that faculty member Alida Anderson and her class of future teachers were undertaking their final presentations for the semester.

Alida’s course was taking place in Gray Hall, the building directly at the corner of campus where the individual was spotted.  Her classroom is on the first floor of the building with two walls of tall windows.  Students and the professor received texts from the university’s alert system about the supposed gunman and were directed to shelter in place.  They immediately turned off the lights and dropped to the floor.   The door to this classroom does not lock from the inside without a key so the students and professor did the best they could to barricade themselves in the room.

As this happened, I tried to get in touch with Dr. Anderson.  I also received the texts, and from home began to check on faculty and students that may have been on campus for final exams.   It took a while, but I was finally able to get in touch with Alida and one of her students.   I tried to keep them informed and told them to stay calm.  I told them to stay still.  I was totally helpless.  I imagined them, a group of 24 women and one man huddled on the floor in a cold, dark room.  They certainly saw the lights of the cop cars and heard the sirens.  Were they all together?  What were they saying to each other?  Was anyone crying?  Were the beeps on their phones the only sound?  How was Alida comforting them?  How was she helping them remain calm?

After almost two hours, it was over.  Turns out, the person spotted was an off-duty policy officer and there was no crime.   I talked on the phone with the professor right after the “all clear” was issued and she was clearly very shaken.  The students applauded her for keeping them calm, texting and sending emails to me complementing Dr. Anderson on her professionalism and composure.  Thank goodness, the event seems to have ultimately been a case of mistaken identity.  But I wondered, was this a lesson this group of future teachers had to learn?

As a school that prepares teachers, we were devastated by the traumatic events at Sandy Hook last year.  There was not a single faculty member who didn’t wonder aloud what the teachers were doing in those classrooms to care for their students in the midst of a total nightmare.  After last night, I realized that we may well be in an era where campus shootings are something to expect, the norm rather than the exception, and that a teacher may be more likely than not to have to be prepared to handle this situation.

AU does a great job preparing us for all sorts of emergencies.  We receive text messages, email and “push” messages on our computers.  There is an old-fashioned public address system on campus.  We’ve had trainings and regular updates.  We had just used this system the day before when campus was closed because of weather.  We were as ready as a campus could be for a gunman or shooting, but up until last night, it was completely theoretical.

There are many aspects to teacher education.  I would argue that American University does a good job preparing new teachers.  Our prospective teachers are taught to design lessons aligned with local and national standards.  They learn to manage the classroom and how to differentiate for a variety of learning needs.  Over the past five years, 100% of our graduates from teaching programs who wanted teaching job got one.  Principals and parents alike regularly report to me that our graduates are terrific.   I couldn’t be more proud of our faculty and alumni.

Teachers and principals are generally provided with on-the job training on school safety through their districts.  Many school systems make use of resources offered by the states or though the Department of Homeland Security.  Most safety training is the purview of administration and school security teams.

But what we don’t teach our new teachers is how to actually handle a campus shooting.  While we give teachers the tools to handle disruptive students and identify students who might need psychological services, teacher preparation programs don’t generally provide hands-on training in handling this type of incident.  Our curriculum does not include classes on how to barricade doors.  We don’t provide instruction on what songs to sing to frightened small children. We don’t offer lessons on deciding whether or not to use your own body as a human shield.    We don’t teach teachers to tell students that everything is going to be okay when we simply don’t know what is happening or if we will live through it. Last night, a professor and her students learned these lessons first hand.

After the night was over and it turned out that it was a misunderstanding, we might consider moving right along.  But then I thought: ‘Is an experience like this a necessary aspect of the preparation of teachers?’  We spend a lot of time discussing and debating issues about teacher training and accountability.  Was this emotionally exhausting trauma perhaps the most important lesson we taught these future teachers?  Is this group of 24 new teachers who sat huddled on the floor in the dark more prepared than any of our other students to be ready to protect their own students should such an event take place in the future?  Should every teacher have go through this chilling event in order to be properly prepared for the next one?  Should we consider this a simulation, and, purposely, do it again?  But if we did it as a simulation, would anyone take it as seriously as this group did last night?

While we all might have planned out in our minds what we would do in such a situation, this professor and her students DID IT.  Each of these new teachers had to make the real decision about how to calm themselves and each other.  They probably all decided whether they should pray aloud or in their heads.   They each had to steady themselves in a way they never thought they would have.   This may have been the most important class of any all semester.

It was a lesson we didn’t want to teach, but perhaps the most important lesson ever.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local
Next Story
Valerie Strauss · December 13, 2013