Many parents of school-aged children have the same nightmare. It involves a gunman in the school, students crying, police sirens, and grieving parents. Most schools now regularly perform lockdown drills to prepare teachers and students for these worst-case scenarios. While I knew my daughter’s elementary school performed lockdown drills, what actually happened during a school lockdown was a mystery to me until I experienced one.
Like a lot of parents I volunteered at my daughter’s elementary school last year. After weeks of helping with spelling tests I collected a bunch of funny stories from the kids in her classroom. I thought I had seen it all. Until the day I heard the word “lockdown” over the intercom.
The voice over the intercom that day was so calm it took me a few seconds to process what had actually just been announced. The children in the hallway with me had no hesitations and immediately entered the nearest classroom.
Not really knowing what to do, I ran into my daughter’s classroom and asked the teacher how I could help. She asked me to sit with the kids and help keep them silent and under the tables.
I knew during lockdown drills that students were asked to hide and be silent until they were told it was OK to return to their normal activities by their teachers and principal. This was the first time I thought about my child’s classroom as being a place to hide rather than a place to learn. The students’ coats hang on hooks in the hallway so there was no closet or enclosed place to hide. We all crawled under tables or sat behind the teacher’s desk and started to wait.
I watched as my daughter’s teacher covered the window to the classroom door and locked it. She then closed the blinds to all of the windows, turned out the lights, and calmly joined the 19 students and I behind her desk. There are normally 28 children in this 2nd grade classroom, but several were sick and a few more were with other specialty teachers.
It seemed lucky that both so many children were absent from the class that day and that there were two adults instead of one present. However, we were still essentially hiding in plain sight, with only a locked classroom door to protect us.
After the adrenaline surge from dashing under a table with a group of 7 year olds wore off, my mind started to go into overdrive. Usually we get an email from the principal the day before a lockdown drill. I didn’t remember getting an email. I mouthed to the teacher, “this is a drill, right?” She replied, “I don’t know.”
That’s when I realized that this might not be a lockdown drill. This might be an actual lockdown.
It’s amazing how slowly time goes by when worst-case scenarios start entering your mind. As the seconds ticked by the children started having a hard time not peeking their heads up from under the table, and I started having a hard time not going into full-blown panic mode.
The children were curious and somewhat excited about the lockdown – I was wondering if I would be able to hold it together if I heard a gunshot or a scream. I knew the worst thing I could do was appear nervous to the children even though part of me wanted to just grab my daughter and make a run for it.
At one point my daughter’s teacher (who was brilliantly calm throughout this entire experience) pointed to two nearby tables and suggested we flip them on their sides to provide extra cover for the children if someone tried to get into the classroom. Trust me when I tell you that nothing can prepare a parent for the moment you are discussing ways to shield children from bullets with your child’s teacher.
Luckily we never had to flip over those tables.
After a very long 10 minutes it was finally announced over the intercom that the lockdown was over. While the kids seemed able to immediately go back to their schoolwork, the adults in the building were obviously a bit more shaken up.
The school’s principal soon told us that the lockdown was called as a precaution after the sheriff was notified of a disruptive adult on campus. The details aren’t important. What was important was that we were all safe.
What has stayed with me after this experience is how relieved I was that I didn’t let the children see the panic that I was feeling that day. For me, the lockdown represented one of my worst nightmares potentially coming to life. For the kids in my daughter’s classroom it was not nearly as dramatic and upsetting.
Perhaps the children’s calmness was a product of the innocence of the 2nd grade, the result of not having images from the Columbine shooting seared into their memories. The lockdown was nothing more to them than an inside fire drill. A normal part of their school routine.
I’m left to wonder if these same children might start to feel anxiety about lockdown drills when they get older and are more aware of previous school shootings. Or how many of these kids did have anxiety hours or days after the lockdown that I just didn’t see.
My daughter’s lockdown happened on Dec 16th 2014, the same day that news broke of a horrific school shooting in Pakistan and two days after the Sandy Hook anniversary. I’m thankful that I was at my daughter’s school that day even though it was a truly frightening experience. And I’m glad I have a better understanding of what the students, and especially the teachers, experience during these drills. I am most thankful for the reminder that as a parent it is my job to protect my daughter not only from the dangers of the world, but from my anxiety about my worst fears as a parent.