If there was an active shooter, you would all be dead,” states Kayleigh Webb Sanchez as she looks each adult in the eye in a video distributed by March for Our Lives. “When you talk out loud, the shooter can tell where you are and where you’re hiding.” In the video, posted on the Twitter feed #GenerationLockdown, adults at a team-building event in National City, CA, get a jolt of reality when a young student is introduced as an “expert” on intruder lockdowns. In the two minutes that follow, she describes what you need to do and how quiet you need to be so that an intruder will not know your whereabouts. As she delivers her chilling message, adults in the room wipe tears from their eyes.
Intruder drills have become a normal part of students’ lives in school. But are we doing enough to make sure we aren’t traumatizing students with the drills that are supposed to make them feel safe? We asked Eric Hoops, principal at Chanute Elementary School in Chanute, KS; Ralph Rothacker, director of education at St. Anne Institute in Albany, NY; and Melissa Sadin, the special education director of Unity Charter School in Morristown, NJ, and executive director of Ducks & Lions: Trauma Sensitive Resources LLC to shed some light on this topic. Principal Leadership’s senior editor, Christine Savicky, moderated the discussion.
Savicky: What does the hashtag #GenerationLockdown mean to you?
Sadin: Having followed the Twitter feed, I definitely think that it is a call to action from educators who are concerned that the very drills that we have devised to try and keep children safe may be traumatizing them.
Hoops: I think it’s a different world, a different age that we live in that we’re not used to. I think it’s something that’s calling our attention to some things that need to be practiced, but I think we definitely need to be cognizant of how we go about practicing these things.
Rothacker: We have come to the realization that we are in need of developing a generation that needs to be conscious of the dangers that are out there. The question is, how do we do it? I think we’re going to find out that some of these drills that we thought were good practice are not necessarily the way to go.
Savicky: Can you equate this type of preparation to another generational preparation drill?
Sadin: I don’t have firsthand knowledge, but I have been told by people that there was a time, particularly after Pearl Harbor and the World War II era, that there were bomb drills and nuclear bomb drills, where children got under desks in response to a sound. [That’s] as far back as I’m familiar.
Hoops: I remember my grandparents talking about those same drills and how they would cover up their heads and sit underneath the desk and basically hope for the best, because if a bomb did strike the school, that would somehow save them.
Rothacker: I’ll admit that I went through those, and I remember them vividly. They were called “civil defense drills,” and we literally had to either crawl under our desks with our head between our knees and our hands over our head, or if we had time, we were allowed to go out into the hallways and face the hallway walls. I can remember the teachers talking to us about getting up really slowly, because kids would get dizzy. I remember kids panicking because they had to use the bathroom and couldn’t do so. It was traumatic, and I remember it very clearly.
Savicky: What kind of social effects are these intruder drills having on students?
Sadin: I have known a few students who have it written into their [accommodation] plans—and in some cases have had parents advocate for plans—that allow them to be outside of the district’s policy because of the potential emotional harm. I also know that children who have adverse childhood experience histories have a far greater sensory response to the way some of these drills are handled than children without an adverse childhood history. I think that there are children for whom these drills are akin to what Ralph was saying and possibly even more scary. Ralph remembers being terrified, and I know that there are children who are starting with school refusal because there might be a drill.
Hoops: As an administrator, what I see is that we may be putting ideas and thoughts in some students’ minds. We have not processed with them the purpose of these drills or prepared them emotionally for the drills. We don’t take the time to talk about why we would do that drill, which has led to some concern from kids and from parents. I’m thinking also of a certain kindergarten student who comes from a deep, deep trauma background. Any little action that’s connected to anything like drills with police or lockdowns—or even the door closing behind you and sitting in a quiet area—stirs up some pretty vivid memories for him.
Rothacker: I think we’re beginning to raise kids in almost a state of fear that schools are unsafe places, which they are not. They’re very safe. Putting that notion in their heads that we need to be prepared for the worst may not be the best way to go. I know that when I was running an elementary school—and by law we had to practice these drills—I would talk with the little guys and say, “You know, it’s like, what if a raccoon got in here and we don’t know if the raccoon is rabid or not? We need to lock down. We need to make sure we’re safe.” I turned it into a raccoon story rather than a potential killer. I just don’t think that kids at the age of 5 or 6 or 7 are going to understand that we’re trying to keep them safe. I think there’s better ways to go.
Savicky: What kind of emotional effects are the intruder drills having on students?
Sadin: We are struggling right now. Every 10 years, there’s something that we deal with as educators that comes up and becomes part of that generation’s children. In the past five to eight years, anxiety is on the rise. It’s far surpassed ADHD, and I do know that the drills have something to do with that for some kids. Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that we are causing anxiety in children because of safety drills. However, I think that we have to talk about moderation, and we have to talk about compassionate care.
I don’t know that anybody’s done any research on how many kids who have anxiety—if they’re old enough to be interviewed—would talk about intruder drills. But I do know that this conversation is happening. I meet folks from all over the country. Both students and teachers describe to me drills—intruder or lockdown or evacuation—that are making them ill and stressed. But I have also heard from educators whose administration has approached the need for safety drills in a compassionate manner. I would bet that if somebody would want to pick up the gauntlet of research that could be done, the schools where compassionate safety drills are done, the children will explain that they feel less anxious or less afraid than these drills where they’re terrifying people in the name of safety.
Hoops: To build on what Ralph said, I went to a threat assessment training, and we were talking about schools that have put a safe room in every classroom. The instructor’s main point was, “What are we telling kids? What are we telling parents when they walk in our classrooms today and that’s the first thing they see? In a school, in a classroom, that we have to have a safe room right there in case something were to happen.” In my building we had to go into lockdown within the first two weeks of school this year, and I think we have some staff and some students who are working through everything from that. Obviously, it’s not a good situation to be in, but again, what are we telling parents, what are we telling kids from the very beginning? “Hey, we want you to come to kindergarten in our building, and by the way, here’s a safe room right here in our classroom.” We do not have those, and I do not believe in those. But I think that’s something to remember as we do these drills and talk about these drills.
The trainer showed us some pictures of the way that some schools are practicing these drills, including makeup and fake guns in the school. In my opinion, there is no reason for all of that to practice what kids need to do to remain safe. As Melissa said regarding the emotional effects, if we don’t do [drills] in a compassionate way, in an observant way, in a respectful way to students and families, then we’re doing ourselves more of a disservice than a service.
Rothacker: I think all of us—not only in public education but in the world—are seeing a dramatic increase in anxiety in both children and adults. But mainly in children the rise is greater, which tells me that schools need to be more compassionate. We certainly don’t want to increase their anxiety. So [we look at] working with the adults to make sure that they are prepared to lead their children through to safety. We don’t necessarily have to include the children in all that dramatic practice, if you will, in order to get the same safe result.
Savicky: Do you believe that stricter gun laws will help diminish the need for those intruder drills?
Sadin: This is a twofold question for me. This first is, do I think that gun laws—or any of our laws in our country—influence the drills that we conduct in school? Yes, I think that there is a direct connection to laws that are passed—good, bad, or otherwise—and whether or not schools have to respond in some way regarding drills. Do I think you can draw a straight line from gun control as a topic [to] drills in school? No. I very apolitically say that school shooting in this country is not a gun issue. It’s a child issue. I am not saying that you should abolish guns, and I’m also not saying everybody should have one. I’m saying it’s not a gun issue at all. That’s a good debate in this country, the right to bear arms, and I’m glad there are people out there engaged in this debate. It needs to be considered and discussed. But children who bear arms and come to our schools have been hurting and have been missed by all of us, and we need to start talking about finding these kids. That’s the conversation I want to have in schools. I’ll leave the gun debate to others.
Hoops: Stricter gun laws are simply treating a symptom of the problem. I firmly believe that the reason for the intruder drills runs much deeper than that. Melissa just stated that the students and the kids who we have that have engaged in this type of activity in schools, they’re hurting. They’re crying out for help, and somehow, we have missed them. I’m not going to get up on the gun laws and whether or not we should have them or not have them. I don’t think that’s what this question is asking. But I think, to me, it’s a much deeper issue for the students that we have to decide to engage in this type of activity.
Rothacker: I’m going to chime in in pretty much the same way. Regardless of which side of the fence I’m on when it comes to gun control, the issue is not guns. The issue is a lack of mental health support for our kids and for our society in general. And until we have that conversation as deeply as we are having gun control conversations, if not deeper, then we’re going to continue to have this debate. But we’ve got to do a better job of supporting our youth through these troubled times and giving them the support that they need and they deserve, so maybe down the road gun control will not be an issue. Right now it is, but like Eric said, it’s the symptom, it’s not the root cause.
Savicky: Do you believe that instilling this fear into children and the long-term effects of that fear are worth it for a scenario that isn’t likely to happen?
Sadin: No. I have been reading lately, and maybe it’s thanks to the Twitter folks who started #GenerationLockdown.
I was a brand-new assistant principal when [the shooting at] Columbine happened, and what they are finding now and what I can tell you is the kids did exactly what the teachers told them to do. They all did exactly what the law enforcement told them to do. There is no such thing as preparing for: Is the intruder inside the building? Outside the building? What wing is he in? Eric is talking about safe spaces. You cannot prepare for all of this. I love the idea of having kids know how to quickly and in an organized manner—without fear—evacuate a building, like fire drills. But after that, you want to talk to teachers about the language. “When you hear this, this is what we need you to do. When you hear this, this is what we need you to do.”
Our heroes at Sandy Hook in Newtown, CT, who did what they needed to do to protect their children—
and the teacher who put her own life in front of her children—that’s never going to make it to an intruder drill handbook. I think that we need to trust that these folks who are working so tirelessly in our public schools, with some amount of training from law enforcement and school leaders, will keep our children safe, and the children absolutely do not need to go through these drills with the adults.
Hoops: I would say certainly not. By instilling fear into children, it’s certainly not worth the long-term effects that these scenarios turn out to be, especially when it’s not likely to happen.
Rothacker: The students absolutely do not and should not be involved. I’ve been through hundreds of these; I have conducted and led many of them. Like Melissa said, the students will do exactly what the adults do, as long as the adults are trained, the adults stay calm, and the adults know the chain of command. And that’s just done with practice.
I know that when I retired from public education, one of the drills that we did as a district on a superintendent’s conference day—meaning that there were no students in the buildings—is that we went through a scenario within our entire district involving fire and police. They gave us a scenario and said that there’s an intruder who was in the high school and the intruder had a brother and sister in elementary school and middle school, respectively. What’s the protocol? Who do we call? How do we go through it? When do the police show up? When do they take over? That drill was unbelievably successful for us. We knew exactly what to do, and even though the next event may not be an intruder, it may be a train that tipped over that had gaseous materials on it, we learned to work through that as a community. That’s the way to go. Kids do not have to be involved. Not only do kids not have to be involved, in my opinion, they should not be involved.
Savicky: What can teachers and principals do to make sure the students are ready, but not necessarily scarred by intruder drills?
Sadin: The first piece is chain of command. I think that it is extremely beneficial for district leaders to decide with law enforcement personnel what the chain of command is, building by building. You want to use the skills of the staff you have—we had personnel who were trained as EMTs—and, as Ralph was saying, the whole staff needs to know. That way I know that Assistant Principal Mike is going to be somewhere in this part of the building, as long as it’s safe to be there. Whether it directly involves you or not, it helps adults to know where the other adults are going to be in the building.
The other piece I want to add is—and I can’t say enough or shout this loud enough—please, I beg the school leaders, to care for the adults. Adults were all once children, and we’re putting them through these drills and traumatizing them, and it is important that principals and school leaders check on people. Just ask, “Yesterday, we did a lot of drills; how are you all feeling? Is everybody OK?” It’s so important that we care for the adults, because they can be triggered by going through these things even though they know it’s beneficial, and we have to take care of them.
Hoops: As a building principal, we owe it to our teachers and staff to prepare them ahead of time. In turn, teachers need to appropriately prepare students—meaning that you prep a kindergarten student differently for this type of a drill than a fifth-grade student. Going back to what Ralph said at the very beginning, talking to kindergartners, it might be a raccoon, it might be a fox coming into the building. And that’s OK. That’s all they need to know. Fifth-graders are at a different level. They have a little better understanding.
The other key piece is when the drill is over, we process again with them. We talk about the why. We talk about all the different things and answer any questions or address any concerns that the students have. I think we do a definite disservice if we just drop the drill on them—we do it and return to class with no discussion. Speaking to what Melissa was talking about, within the first two weeks of this school year, we were put on lockdown because of a situation that was occurring outside our building. The number one action—and probably the most important action—that we took was to check on our teachers and our staff and our kids throughout the ordeal. We took them snacks and arranged bathroom breaks. The next day we visited with them about the situation. We discussed the whole procedure with them, answered any questions, confirmed any concerns.
I would say definitely previewing, reviewing after the situation, turning around and reflecting on what happened and how it was handled were all important. There are some things that we are going to do differently next time if we’re faced with a similar situation. But I would agree completely with Melissa. I think quite often we are concerned about the kids, but staff members and the adults in our buildings might be somebody that we forget about, and we certainly need to take care of them as well.
Rothacker: The culture of the school building has an incredible impact on how safe the kids feel. When I do training about being trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive, one of the first things I tell administrators is, “Treat your staff the way you want them to treat their students. Treat them with compassion and understanding, and work out problems with them.” Once you have that culture established, kids will follow, and staff will follow.
I’ll tell you a good lesson that I learned. There was a time when I was the principal of an elementary school, and just at dismissal time, the weather deteriorated. We had thunder, lightning, and wind coming through, and it was unsafe to put kids on the buses. We gathered in the gym. Teachers were trying to console kids by showing them their phones, and saying, “Look. On the radar, it’s passing. It’s going be OK.” Students were getting all sorts of different messages. Parents were coming in and wanting to pick up their kids. It was chaos. Although I tried to lead, and other people were trying to help, we had a great deal of confusion. The very next day, I called a meeting and said, “OK, let’s debrief, and let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen again.” Everybody was safe, but it wasn’t smooth. I was not comfortable. So, it goes back to practice with the adults and believing in the adults, and having the kids believe in the adults, and that all goes back to relationship and culture.
Savicky: What are your final thoughts on #GenerationLockdown?
Sadin: I believe that the single most important thing that we can do in our schools is to help our children feel safe—safe physically from harm in the building and safe emotionally that “I am accepted. I am worthy. I have connections in the school.” I think that we need to reassess anything that might happen in a school that jeopardizes a child’s ability to feel safe. It is not a tradeoff, that they have to experience this special effects Hollywood nightmare so they’d be ready if it ever happened. Because if it never happened, we’ve still terrified them.
I say moderation and compassion. If you are stuck in a state where you are required as a principal to conduct things, and without doing so are disobedient in your job, then I ask that you do so by leading with compassion and marrying that with whatever the requirements are that you are being asked to follow. And I think that the conversations are taking place, thanks to folks on Twitter and folks on Facebook and on social media and on the news. So, what’s happening is, law enforcement and higher-up government officials are having conversations about this, and I hope that they consider compassion and the safety of our children emotionally in their conversations.
Hoops: We need to make sure that all students—no matter what background they come from—when they walk into our schools, [they] know that they are loved and cared about and that they are the No. 1 priority while they are there. I think if we build that culture and we build those types of relationships, as well as helping to address the mental health issues that we are currently facing, I think we’ll see a much different school culture and a much different generation.
Rothacker: My biggest hope is that
#GenerationLockdown transforms into Generation Connection. As we said before, #GenerationLockdown is reacting to the symptom. I love some of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ work. She wrote a book called The Deepest Well, where as a pediatrician she talked about how she can treat the kids with all the same illness and give them all the same thing, but she’s treating the symptoms. We have to go to the well where they drank from and figure out what’s wrong with the well. That’s exactly what we need to do as a society. We need to dig deeper in finding out why all these issues of increased anxiety and mental health are happening. We start by dealing with mental health issues not only in our schools, but in our society. I’d much rather see schools hire more mental health therapists right now than guidance counselors and even speech therapists. That’s where the need is right now.