The call comes in over the intercom.
“Lockdown, lockdown. This is a hard lockdown.”
Today it’s just a drill. I pray we never have to use all our practice for the real thing.
If you were a child in the 1950s and early ‘60s, you may remember fire drills, tornado drills, and air raid drills, hiding under your desk. The air raid drills, that could never have protected anyone from an atomic bomb, have gone by the wayside. Today’s students practice a safe escape in case of fire, taking shelter in case of tornado, and evacuating the building in case of gas leak, attack, or another emergency. We also teach students what to do if someone comes into our building with the intent to shoot everyone there.
We do not tell elementary students that someone with a gun could come into our school. I introduce the idea of the drill this way.
“Boys and girls, you know how we practice fire drills even though our school has never had a fire? And we practice tornado drills even though we’ve never been hit by a tornado? Next week we’re going to practice another kind of drill. In this one, we’re going to practice what we would do if someone bad came into our building. This has never happened and I don’t think it ever will, but we’re going to practice just in case.”
We go over procedures, pretending that I’m the shepherd and the big, bad wolf is coming. But my third graders know the difference. They imagine details far worse than any I provide. I think it says something about our culture of violence that most of my little boys promise to beat up any bad man who would come in.
I won’t give you the details of the drill or procedures. No point in advertising. If you have children in school in the U.S., ask them. What they say may surprise you.
The FBI says, “Odds are one in 1 million that a student will die at school as a result of a violent act.”
For the parents at Sandy Hook, that statistic can provide no comfort.
The unfortunate reality is that no amount of drill practice can prevent a shooting. The best we can do by teaching these skills is to minimize the number of casualties. As a police officer assisting with one of our drills told me, the shooter’s primary target will be shot.
But our state requires the drills, as well as the sign at the front door. It warns that no guns are allowed in our building, as though that will stop an individual with intent. Just as in so many other areas of crime prevention, we put our emphasis on preparing potential victims, rather than using proactive prevention, a multi-faceted approach.
There is no single cause for school shootings. But something I know after more than thirty years of teaching is that violent people are unhappy people. Certainly, caring and awareness are essential first steps.
People often say that shooters are people who have been bullied and this is how they are striking back. This can be true, but it can also be just the perception of being treated unfairly that provides the “reason” for the attack. Feelings of alienation can be the cause of outward violence, but also of self-harm. We need to reach out and always be kind.
One theory often proposed is that school shootings are caused by mental illness. It’s true that our country has repeatedly failed in dealing with mental illness. We’ve gone from jails to horrific psychiatric institutions, then back to prison and homelessness. Our funding, facilities, and public attitude toward mental illness have progressed very little since the 1800s. According to a Mother Jones timeline, the ratio of psychiatric beds to population today is the same as it was in the 1850s.
So, does mental illness cause attacks? Sometimes, yes, but the reality is that mentally ill people are more often victims than perpetrators of violence. The New York Times and This American Life tell a frightening story that partially resulted from the increase in armed security guards in hospitals. More guns are clearly not the answer for mental illness.
Sandy Hook parents have banded together to provide free information on prevention. They want you to know the signs. One is, “Exhibiting excessive over-reactions or aggressive behavior for a seemingly minor reason can signal someone who cannot self-regulate their emotions or control their anger.”
Reading this rings bells for me. A major issue in education today is working with children of trauma. Paul Tough in The Atlantic writes about the results of “severe and chronic stress in childhood” which results in that hair-trigger fight-or-flight response. Poverty is strongly correlated with alcoholism, family instability, violence and more. Sadly, over 50% of students in schools today are children of poverty, most of whom are the working poor. We must address income disparity, but children also suffer trauma in wealthier communities. Issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual abuse sadly happen to children everywhere. Programs for partners and children from the CDC can be a first step.
Then there is the smoking gun. Critics would say that guns don’t kill, people kill. True, but the reality is that automatic weapons significantly increase the number of people someone can kill. School shootings are largely an American gun-culture phenomenon, as shown on this annotated list detailing events since before the Revolutionary War. In time, weapons have increased in number and efficiency. We need screening, monitoring, and restricted access for youth and those with mental illness.
We must act. To reach out to those on the outside. To compassionately serve those with mental illness. To combat sources of childhood trauma. To control the availability of firearms for those who cannot be trusted to use them safely. Until then, we will continue to read the headline, “Another School Shooting.”
Whose school will be next?