For almost two decades, school boards around the country have focused on developing approaches to school safety that could meet major security challenges like mass shootings. Policymakers, administrators and educators have worked hard to put the right systems in place. In parallel, social workers and therapists like myself have studied and thought about the human effects of safety procedures and security frameworks.
But coronavirus — and in particular the lockdown and social distancing measures that came with it — has radically altered the conversation about school safety. Looking ahead, school board members need to embrace this new normal, demonstrating keen leadership, compassion and ability to visualize a healthy, nurturing environment for students and teachers.
Even before coronavirus shut down our schools and brought society to a standstill, lockdown was a fraught concept. School boards were charged with the difficult but essential task of protecting students against an extreme form of violence, but doing so in an educational setting.
For students, things were just as difficult. Children went to school with the constant fear of being shot to death. On top of that, they had to cope with lockdown drills, active shooter drills and evacuation drills (often in the same month). These students, who now learn about the latest shooting in real time, have come of age at a time when the basic assumption, “I will be safe in school,” no longer holds true.
Schools across the country have responded to this situation with a slew of safety measures, the core of which are so-called “lockdown drills,” which simulate an active shooter situation, and typically require students to sit quietly and out of sight of a threat.
All New Jersey schools are required by law to have one fire drill a month and one school security drill—which often takes the form of a lockdown. Lockdowns, of course, are designed to secure a school and protect students, but they can produce anxiety, stress and trauma in some students and even in some staff members.
Often, in order to make these drills more lifelike, officials choose not to call them drills. For kids like the ones I treat almost daily as a therapist, this practice has resulted in severe, sometimes debilitating stress, and even outright trauma. The trend became so radically apparent, I was compelled to write a book about it, whose title, Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence, spotlights that ominous term.
The statistics on school shootings are disturbing, but they also paint a dual picture. More than 200,000 school students have been exposed to gun violence since the Columbine school shooting in 1999. Shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people, mostly children, lost their lives, are tragic beyond imagination. They leave a trail of emotional and psychological devastation we can never fully heal.
Despite this, according to Everytownresearch.org, only 0.2% of the approximately 36,000 gun deaths a year occur on school grounds. Yet, lockdown drills continue to become a regular and often dramatic part of the school day.
As a therapist, I’ve interviewed hundreds of children and parents, seeking to understand how kids are doing in this climate of fear. I learned many children were feeling anxious about school safety. Children frequently worry about going to the bathroom during the school day for fear of a lockdown event taking place while they’re on the way to, or in, the bathroom. Some openly discuss whether jumping out a second story window is a safer option than being trapped with a shooter in the school. “I don’t want to die alone,” was one chilling statement I heard over and over again.
Against this emotional context, I invite you to imagine a school principal getting on the loudspeaker and shouting, “Lockdown! Lockdown! Lockdown!” How many children and staff members will experience psychological and emotional distress by hearing these words? How many times can a student be expected to endure the stress of these drills?
Ironically, it’s taken a pandemic of historical dimensions for many of us to understand the depth of this issue. America’s population has collectively experienced the trauma, fear, and uncertainty of being in a state of lockdown. We all know the feeling of powerlessness it engenders. But that is precisely why now is the time to address the issue of lockdown at its root. We can start doing so by thinking carefully about the fundamental and impactful aspect: language.
In no uncertain terms, a “lockdown” speaks to a state of duress or, at very least, of passivity. It communicates that the circumstances are not of our choosing. And its connotations are distinctly negative, with the term originating in its current sense in the 1970s to refer to prison lockdowns during spikes of violence or disturbance.
Words matter. Prior to the coronavirus lockdown, I would have urged you to join me on a national campaign I’d recently launched, “Just Call It a Drill!” I would have explained to you why it was traumatizing to children and adults to go through monthly lockdown drills without knowing if they were a drill or the real thing.
Now, however, I urge you to join me on eliminating the word “lockdown” from the school safety lexicon entirely and refer to drills of this type as Intruder Alert Drills. But that’s just the spark for a broader, deeper process of change.
Without making any resource commitments, school board members can begin this process today simply by:
- Reviewing current school security protocols and procedures, paying attention to how they’re structured, managed and described.
- Learning who helped advise this current protocol, when it was last revised and who might be best suited to lead an update of protocols.
- Considering including a mental health expert, in addition to security personal, law enforcement and members of the school administration, when developing or updating security plans.
Finally, for schools looking to enact change now, there are steps they can take which are similarly simple and powerful. In the box on the previous page, I detail protocols for safeguarding the psychological and emotional wellbeing of students, staff and faculty during Intruder Alert Drill Protocols.