The back-to-school excitement has faded, and it’s time to settle into routine. For even the smallest students, that routine probably includes practicing for the worst: taking part in lockdown drills to prepare for active shooters or other intruders in school.
We parents don’t want to think about it. I know I don’t. When I happened to be in the classroom when my kindergartner had a lockdown drill, I was shaken by the huddling against the wall, the shushing, the darkened room and the ominous sound of the custodians rattling the doors to make sure they were locked. Other parents there later told me they’d held back tears. The kids, though, were largely unruffled. They’ve done this before, just as we did fire drills in our youth.
Maybe that’s exactly what we want. We want kids to be prepared for the worst, to automatically and calmly know what to do — and that’s why school lockdown drills, which are required in many states, are becoming more common. Lockdowns in crisis situations “are reliable and proven methods for keeping students and staff safe,” says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, so practicing for them is an important component of school safety.
My children started participating in lockdown drills in preschool, and it takes a special kind of care to help a 3- or 4-year-old practice for a situation where someone might be trying to shoot them. The key is in the language adults use, says Michele Gay, parent of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings and a founder of Safe and Sound Schools, a nonprofit that serves as an educational hub for school safety.
Teachers are experts in talking to kids, and we’ve left these difficult conversations to them. Active shooters are fundamentally different from natural threats. “Psychologically it’s really difficult to wrap our heads around,” says Gay. To “take some of the fear out of it, [we should keep] it really general. We’re not describing ‘bad guys’; we’re talking about ‘danger.’” Safe and Sound Schools favors teachers’ using simple language with young kids such as “Can we get out?” and “Can we hide out?” from the danger, whatever it might be, and practicing for different types of responses without talk of intruders or other specific safety threats.
If you haven’t noticed anxiety from your kids about their safety drills, that’s a good thing, and it probably means that school personnel are handling the exercises in a reassuring and calm way. Here’s the thing, though: My kid’s being trained, and I hope yours is too (do you know, by the way?), but I’m not getting trained or educated as a parent for that dreaded crisis situation.
My children’s preschool had an annually updated emergency phone-chain system in place, and it also sent home a slip of paper that said “Your child had a ________ (fire, lockdown, etc.) drill today,” in case little ones came home talking. These are sensible, concrete steps to loop parents in to the safety process and plan for parent communication in an emergency. But I can’t recall ever having been informed about any drills at my older kids’ elementary schools. The district’s extensive information about safety drills is not a secret, and it is certainly available to parents upon request, but in the past five years of my kids’ elementary school, I don’t recall any general message saying, “These are the drills we conduct each year. In the event of an actual emergency, this is how we would communicate with you, and this is where you could find updates.” Why not test those emergency communication methods annually to make sure they work and to remind parents of the system, sort of like those tests of the Emergency Alert System on the radio: “This is a test. This is only a test. If this had been an actual emergency…”
I’m not trying to pick on my school district. Rather, this is an example of a more generalized problem in school safety. Our kids may be getting good safety education and drills at school, but how would we even know? If there were a real emergency, are we parents prepared to know our role and respond in a way that’s helpful to the rest of the safety plan? Gay says “parents are a very big, very important missing piece in school safety nationally.”
Parents have the biggest stake of all in school safety — their own children. But, Gay says, “they’ve been wittingly, unwittingly — whatever the reason is — kept out of the discussion and the problem-solving efforts for so very long now.” Parents, of course, are emotional about school safety, but Gay believes educating and engaging parents all along can make the conversation “smoother, perhaps a little less emotionally charged and more productive.”
I admit that I’d probably be emotional about my kids’ safety in a crisis situation — really, who wouldn’t be? But bad communication absolutely exacerbates this. Last year, when my local high school received threats of violence via social media (which later turned out to be a hoax), a whole school’s worth of parents got emotional, too. Administrators did not tell teachers exactly what to tell students, and some teachers gave their classes permission to go home. Students throughout the school pulled out their cellphones and texted their parents (often with misinformation), and many parents received no official communication from the school district, often because their contact information was not up to date. Parents showed up in droves to pick up students, a school day was wasted, and trust was undermined.
Most parents are not trained emergency responders. We might, in fact, panic in a crisis or at the very hint of crisis. And that’s exactly why parents need to practice, too. Schools must include parents in school safety or risk complicating an actual emergency with confusion and chaos. Gay agrees it is critical to prepare the parent community — to let parents know in advance how the school would communicate and at what intervals, and to inform parents ahead of time that emergency communications will clearly advise parents whether they should stay put and remain ready or whether it’s time to actually come collect a child. “That [preparation of the parents] piece seems so simple, but that was something that really fell apart for our [Sandy Hook] school community.”
No one likes to think about the worst. But parents need to be prepared, too, so we can be as calm and ready we’ve encouraged our children to be.
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