What Exactly Are Lockdown Drills Teaching Kids?

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 11 2013 11:52 PM

Lockdown Nation

We routinely terrify and traumatize kids to spare them terror and trauma.

spring high school parents
Parents wait across the street from Spring High School in Texas for their children to be released from a lockdown after a stabbing at the school on Sept. 4, 2013.

Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

This is the way we live now.

  • Ukiah, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 10. Three South Ukiah schools locked down after a report of a man with a rifle near the church behind one of the schools.
  • Hiddenite, N.C., Tuesday, Dec. 10: Hiddenite Elementary school locked down after a nearby bank robbery.
  • Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday, Dec. 10: Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School locked down after a “vague threat” found written on a bathroom wall.
  • Lake Villa, Ill., Tuesday, Dec. 10: Five Lake County schools locked down over two separate incidents, one involving a man wielding a rifle in his home during a domestic dispute, the other involving a student who brought a weapon to a middle school.
  • Milwaukee, Friday, Dec. 6:  James Madison Academic Campus put on lockdown after unsubstantiated report of a gun on grounds. 
  • Tempe, Ariz., Friday, Dec. 6, Fees College Preparatory Middle School locked down after police found a boy carrying a BB gun on campus.
  • Stockton, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 5: Grunsky Elementary School placed on lockdown as a result of a domestic dispute in a nearby residence.
  • Genesee Township, Mich., Thursday, Dec. 5: Kearsley High School placed on lockdown after someone calls in a bomb threat.
  • Howard County, Md., Thursday, Dec. 5: Lockdown at Laurel Woods Elementary School and Forest Ridge Elementary School.
  • Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, Dec. 4: West Orange High School on lockdown after a 15-year-old student shot by another student in face and abdomen.
  • Dayton, Ohio, Wednesday, Dec. 4: Meadowdale High School on lockdown after unconfirmed reports of a student with a gun.
  • Cincinnati, Wednesday, Dec. 4: Lincoln Heights Elementary School locked down when a woman was shot in the neighborhood, and someone shot into the back of a school bus dropping children off.  
  • Wake Forest, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 4 : Wake Forest Middle School, Heritage Elementary School, Heritage Middle School, and Heritage High School all locked down after a robbery at a local bank.
  • Greenbriar, Ark., Wednesday, Dec. 4: Greenbrier schools on lockdown when parents of children in the district were involved in a domestic dispute off-campus.
  • Wingate, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 4: All of Wingate University placed on lockdown after two people were fatally shot on a nearby street.
  • Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, Dec. 4: Rutland Elementary School on lockdown after man crashes car nearby and escapes from police on foot.

That’s just a fraction of them. And that’s just one week.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

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Every day in this country, a school goes into lockdown after a bomb or a gun threat, a neighborhood crime or domestic dispute, or a false alarm. To prepare for such events schools must have (as mandated in some states) lockdown drills to train students on what the appropriate lockdown procedures are.

I find myself joining many other parents who worry that in teaching our children how to behave when somebody storms their classroom with a gun, we have unloosed something dramatic upon them without much serious reflection. Lockdowns are simply what we do now. My son’s elementary school was locked down the first week of school this fall when shots were heard in the neighborhood. He tells me they all pack themselves into the closet. He’s 8. But how often should we have lockdowns and why and when and how do they work?  How are parents notified and what happens to the kids in the bathroom or off campus and who is studying the effects of all this?

I don’t recall any serious national public dialogue about lockdown protocols or how they became the norm. It seems simply to have begun, modeling itself on the lockdowns that occur during prison riots, and then spread until school lockdowns and lockdown drills are as common for our children as fire drills, and as routine as duck-and-cover drills were in the 1950s.

Let’s agree from the get-go that doing nothing in the face of lethal school shootings is not an option. There is no dispute that Sandy Hook taught us, among other things, that having plans and protocols in place when an intruder is hell-bent on killing children will save lives, even many lives. And let’s also agree, as Sarah Goodyear points out, that the specter of mass school shootings was not something we had to contend with 50 years ago. As she explains, “If you look at the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history—those claiming 12 or more lives—half of them occurred during the 50 years between 1949 and 1999. The other half of those deadliest shootings occurred in the past six years—between 2007 and now.”

But as the list of lockdown stories above attests, many of the lockdowns in the last week occurred as a result of nearby crimes, local domestic disputes, false or ambiguous reports of armed individuals in the neighborhood, and runaway drug dealers. We have learned to err on the side of a lockdown under almost every crime-related scenario that occurs near any school. And the question is whether there is any cost to that and who is tallying it?

There are a lot of very thoughtful arguments against the lockdown culture we have quietly embraced in recent years. The first worrisome aspect is that in order to teach kids about lockdowns you need to teach them to do the impossible: become invisible and silent. Depending on the school policy, they may be taught to run in zig-zag patterns, crouch on toilet seats, huddle under desks, or mass themselves under the classroom door. But critics of the new lockdown culture worry that in so doing we teach them not only to be passive in the case of attack but that there is some standard way to react to any number of situations that are only truly comparable in that something bad is happening. We routinely terrify and traumatize them in an effort to spare our kids terror and trauma. We create realistic drills complete with fake cops and shootings in order to impress upon our kids that armed deranged gunmen are what? Really scary? I think they may already know that.

The data I have looked at about the stress caused by lockdowns is pretty ambiguous. Some suggest these drills are really traumatic, especially for young and special-needs children, and some suggest they are not. But what worries me most of all is that after a few dozen times, neither lockdowns nor lockdown drills will seem that much scarier than fire drills for kids. Certainly we can keep on moving the bar for what constitutes “normal” in American schools. But stop and think about that. Isn’t the argument that our children can normalize almost anything the problem, and not the solution?

It’s not just that the reflexive default to lockdown is overreactive, in that we now lockdown entire schools and clusters of schools for threats on bathroom walls, armed neighbors, local domestic disputes, and kids with pellet guns. It’s also underreactive, in that we have somehow persuaded ourselves that there is absolutely nothing else we can do about the fact that our children are not safe in their schools.  We can’t stop the tsunami of people who want to openly carry guns in certain jurisdictions. We can’t pass legislation that would limit improper access to guns, even when 90 percent of the public supports it. And we can do nothing to truly ensure that kids aren’t living in a culture of daily deaths from guns. So in the absence of a public policy solution, or any kind of collective will to find a public policy solution, we just make a decision to treat armed killers in schools as we previously treated fires and tornadoes: as acts of God instead of failures of legislative and moral courage. There will be more and more shootings near schools and more and more lockdowns.

And so this is what we have tacitly agreed to do now: We ask our kids to pile themselves silently into their classroom closets, and we tell them this is what freedom looks like. Maybe. Or maybe the real message of our burgeoning lockdown nation is that we are all of us huddled there in the closet now, trying to be invisible and silent, and hoping that whatever is out there will just go away.