Another tragedy in another school.
While many in the Birmingham area are celebrating the end of the school year, another town in a different state is in mourning. As we watch the news unfold, I am reminded of a conversation with my daughter at the dinner table when she was in kindergarten. It’s one of those frozen-in-time moments. One I was in no way prepared for—no parent before this generation has been prepared for lock-down drills in school.
My daughter was upset while sharing her day with us because she experienced her first formal lock-down drill. In her words, this meant the whole class had to hide under their desks silently with the doors locked so bad people couldn’t get them. She had so many questions and was worked up about it for a few days wondering where the bad people were and when they were coming. Not if, but when. The girls in the class were shaken while the boys were not phased in the least. We did our best to soothe her concerns. Yet, I just remember my husband and me looking at each other across the table with wide eyes. Reality hit then that this would become part of her norm. It wasn’t temporary, it was permanent.
Generations ago schools had atomic bomb protocols and nuclear shelters. That was before my time and the only real training I remember from school was the standard tornado and fire drills. We also had D.A.R.E., Smokey the Bear, and that good character development stuff most Generation Y-ers consider elementary school staples. We had no metal detectors, no active shooter drills, and no lockdown protocols. There were no PTA meetings about armed teachers and no bulletproof backpacks.
It should be stated for the record that I have no interest in using this as a forum for gun control or mental health discussions. While you likely have an opinion (to which you are entitled) debating the “why” isn’t going to make me a better parent to my scared daughter. How do I answer her questions properly to get her comfortable with her reality as a school-age child?
Prepare, Not Scare
Schools, like other places of business, create policies and procedures to ensure safety and security. While the specifics vary from state to state and even district to district, schools are required to have action plans for various emergencies. In your area, your child may refer to the drill as Code Red, Active Shooter, or Lock-Down. These are all synonyms for the practice drill in the event of a dangerous situation that is not weather-related.
We have taken the approach with our daughters to treat these drills like they do severe weather or fire drills. Having them doesn’t mean something bad is going to happen. But, it’s important to be prepared and know what is expected of them in the situation.
Fire drills aren’t designed to instill fear of fire. In the same way, lock-down drills aren’t designed to make children or parents fearful. Be sure you don’t downplay the importance of being prepared. That might include prep to get comfortable with an uncomfortable situation. Some elements of the drill to prepare for could include:
- Police and/or Fire Department Presence
- Alarms or Other Loud Noises
- Instructions to Sit Quietly and Be Still for Several Minutes
- How to Follow Their Teacher’s Instructions (Because a Parent Will Not Be There)
Aware Versus Unaware
If your child hasn’t mentioned anything like this to you, there is a very good chance that they have experienced the drill without even knowing. Since schools are given some flexibility on how they execute safety drills, there can be some for just staff and some for students and staff. I refer to this as aware and unaware.
In an aware drill, which was the first experience my daughter had, students are notified of what is happening and instructed directly on how to react. Common directives include having children hide in a predetermined safe location with doors locked and lights off. They may be instructed to wait in a restroom, a closet, or under a desk until an all-clear is given. Another name for this is often “shelter in place.”
In an unaware drill, only the staff is communicated with and provided the protocol. Students continue with their day as normal, however, the doors are locked, and lights could be off with additional security measures around the school being implemented.
In order to be supportive parents, our goal must be to minimize any fear or anxiety and provide comfort. To do that, one recommendation is to do all you can to ease your fears. Do some research on your own so you are informed and can speak positively about the plans in place.
Steps to Ease Your Fears
- Know when the drills are happening. If the information is not readily available to you, ask the teacher or principal. Talking about it in advance could be all the comfort your child needs. The unknown can be scary in and of itself.
- Know the procedures. Spend some time on your state’s department of education website and your specific school/district website. Understand the emergency procedures as well as the prevention measures that are in place.
- Test the system yourself. Next time you need to drop off a forgotten lunch or pick up your child for an appointment, do some recon. Go in unannounced. Identify how easy it is for you to get into the building. Notice what security measures are in place, what you can access before a staff member stops you, and the like.
- Subscribe to all of the alerts offered by your school. I don’t think I have ever once heard a parent say their child’s school sends out too much information. Ensure you are getting all of it, including text, email, Twitter, Facebook, apps, etc. Utilize whatever tools the school will use to provide information in the event of an emergency. Ensure you have subscribed, saved all contacts or important accounts, and have alerts turned on.
This is new for all of us as parents. The number of children you have or the length of time you have been a parent can’t better prepare you for these situations. It’s easy to see and hear the stories and think it will never happen in your school or your neighborhood. However, I am not comfortable with that belief. It doesn’t change my feelings toward the public school district we are a part of or prevent me from going about my daily life; I just can’t brush off my child’s concerns by saying “don’t worry, it will never happen here.”
It’s okay for our children to be uncomfortable with the code red drills they experience in school. It’s okay for parents to be uncomfortable with this school reality. I hope with all of my heart that they never encounter the situations they prepare for, but I know it’s always better to be prepared. We need to teach them not to focus on the ‘why’ but on the ‘what next’ if they ever find themselves in a dangerous position. Talking about it openly has helped our girls understand that preparation is important and not a cause for fear.
Can you ever truly be prepared for a situation like this? Have you had any discussion in your home about these drills and how your child feels about their safety at school? Please share your experiences in the comments.