A First-grader’s Account of a School Lockdown Drill

I wrote the following Facebook post last night, and it sparked a discussion that I’d like to continue here:

At dinner tonight, here are the sad, inevitable, horrifying words that spilled out of my first-grader’s mouth, four days into the school year (being a writer, I couldn’t help but discreetly take notes as he talked). I’m sharing them because I think they’re important–whether your own child says them out loud or not:

“There’s one thing about my school that makes me not want to go back. It’s this thing called a hard lockdown where in case there’s a bad guy in the school who wants to take a child or has a gun we have to go into the bathroom. And we have to be quiet for like three hours. Well, sometimes it might just be ten minutes but sometimes it might take a lot of hours. And we have to face the bathroom door and sing a quiet song so he doesn’t hear us.

“But our teacher said he’d have to get through her first. And we have like 19 kids in our classroom, and we could tackle him, too, couldn’t we? Kids can tackle adults. There are 19 of us. We could do it, right?

Photo Credit: BRETT MYERS/Youth Radio

Photo Credit: BRETT MYERS/Youth Radio

“I was so good and happy in school, in kindergarten and the first part of first grade, until they talked about the hard lockdowns. I thought that it would happen.

“But I guess it never happened in kindergarten and that was a whole year.”

When my son finished talking, I told him: “Just like they need to prepare you for tornadoes and fires, they need to prepare you for this. And just like with tornadoes and fires, it’s very unlikely it will ever happen. There are some bad people in the world, so we need to be prepared, but there are many, many more good people.”

The Facebook discussion brought up a whole host of questions: Why weren’t parents told about the drill? What is the right way to prepare children for the very rare possibility an armed nut will enter their school? How do we talk about it afterward with our children? What role do parents play in school drills? What details do children need to know? Should it even be called a “lockdown”?

Please join the conversation and let me know your thoughts in the comments below–has your child had a similar drill? What is your school’s policy regarding parent notification? What words do you use with your child when talking about it? Does your school have a discussion with children after the drill?

16 thoughts on “A First-grader’s Account of a School Lockdown Drill

  1. I read this on FB yesterday — really scary, Jessica. I really don’t have too much to specifically say about the policy or drill procedures because my kids are older and never had this experience. In fact, when my son was in middle school, he heard about a school shooting (in another state) and he was terrified, wondering what he should do if such a thing happened. So much so that I went to the principal, who poo-pooed my son’s (and my) fears. On that level, I’m glad schools take these things seriously now. On the other hand, my initial reaction when I read your FB post was that at the very least the school should have have prepared parents with some kind of “send home” information. It would’ve been even nicer if parents had a walkthrough, a sort of drill to experience what their children would be told. I certainly hope the school at least does a debriefing/discussion with kids so they can express their fears. So hard to have to talk to our children at all about these terrifying incidents, and how the handling is handled is so crucial. I commend you for the calm way you handled this with your son, it can’t have been easy.

    • It is surprising to me, Julia–that your school didn’t take it seriously, and that now it’s taken so seriously as to almost be a given that it must be done and parents don’t need to be made aware. My thoughts are yours exactly–a letter home at the very least. A virtual walk-through even better, so we can better understand and answer questions. I just this morning found out from the teacher that the singing my son referred to has to do with a question that was asked during the drill: “What if I have to pee and I’m embarrassed to do it in front of everyone?” So, not to do with a gunman. But my son did not separate those two things, kids process differently, and that’s why parents need to know the specifics.

  2. Jess, my kids school did nothing a few years ago. We never knew what drills they had or when they had them. Two years ago after a shooting, my husband and I gathered our friends and went to the board meeting. We demanded increased safety measures at the schools and better parent communication. Low and behold that summer they remodeled the fronts of the buildings for better safety and a letter comes home after every single drill. It’s terrifying as a parent to possibly imagine this happening at your school. Our superintendent compared it to the odds of winning the lottery where I in turn said there are people that win the lotto everyday. Our world is full of nut cases, apparently, who do not value human life. It’s very sad but very real. Good for Henry for being so aware of the situation.

  3. Jessica, I agree with many of the points made by Julia. There is no way we can protect our children 100%. I wish we could, but everyone has a different idea of how much their children should be told. What they don’t hear from their parents, they will hear from another well-meaning adult, the news media, and most of all, from their friends. Beyond having a good communication system between the school and the parents, the best thing parents can do is mitigate their child’s fears by having open conversation with them, and reassuring them that it doesn’t happen everywhere. I like the idea of parents going through a mock lockdown, perhaps with their children. I hate that the world has come to terrorists, wacko’s, and thugs occupying so much of our newswaves and dinner table discussions.
    I wish we could go back to a simpler time (such as when I was growing up) where the worst we had to fear at school was a occasional bomb threat (which always turned out to be a hoax, usually by a disgruntled student) or the possibility of a fire in the building.
    When I was in college I did a student internship in a school with bars on the window and locked gates. The playground was even locked. I thought it was horrible that it was necessary to go to those lengths to protect the children from the neighborhood they lived in. It is such a shame that schools anywhere have to be under lock and key the way they are today.
    It sounds like you handled the situation with your young one very wisely, but I would definitely keep up a dialog with the school administration and teachers.

    • Thanks, Michelle. I plan to try to continue the conversation with the school, and yet it’s hard because school just started and I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot. But it’s important, and I’m pretty fired up about it–I get they need to be prepared; I’m just disappointed that it was handled fairly carelessly. Teachers have gone through it many times, older kids and their parents have gone through it, and all of those people I’ve talked to seem less concerned. But this was my first time and Henry’s first time, and I think that needed to be acknowledge more sensitively.

      • The conversations are the most important part, I agree Jess. And I always felt like I was walking that line, so I know what you mean–not wanting to misstep if it was too soon, etc. As I read through these comments, it occurred to me that maybe the school doesn’t communicate these drills because they are afraid of people finding out through word of mouth and knowing the process the schools use. Horrifying to think, but maybe… Ugh. Wish I could protect the world’s children. No, I wish the children didn’t need protecting. Hang in there.

        • Thanks, Julia. I’ve been told that our school has communicated the drills in the past, sending home a note at the end of the day. I’m not sure why they didn’t do it this time. I’ve received a response from the teacher about my concerns, but it didn’t touch on the specific parent communication issue. Now the question is, “Do I repeat my questions in another email and become THAT parent?”

  4. I know exactly how you are feeling. Last year my daughter was in Kindergarten (she is our only child). At the first PTO meeting in Sept, it was announced that the school would be doing a school-wide lockdown drill in early October. I was literally tearing up when I raised my hand and asked how it would be communicated to the younger children because my daughter (and I assume many other children) had NO idea/concept/knowledge about the (remote) potential for an armed gunman to enter a school. We just didn’t feel that it was appropriate for her to know about that stuff at such a young age, and want to control the kind of information she gets in an age-appropriate way (and also with some context). Some of the more seasoned parents tried to comfort me by saying that the early grades would be told that it was to practice in the event that a “stray dog” ever entered the school. My emotions ranged wildly and widely; my daughter is already afraid enough of large dogs and anxious by temperament so this wasn’t exactly a panacea and also I can’t imagined 4th/5th graders wouldn’t talk about the truth around her. Ugh. It was awful. She happened to miss that drill because we were out of town that week, but was there for the similar drill they did in the spring. She was terrified during the exercise (she told me after the fact), saying she was all hot and nervous and nauseous. I know I need to do a better job about having these conversations with her, but admittedly it’s hard when your child is already anxious about so many other things. Incidentally, had I not gone to that PTO meeting, we wouldn’t have been alerted as parents ahead of time (which makes me think that some parents didn’t know ahead of time), and for the spring drill there was just a one-liner on the monthly school calendar. It’s not enough communication, that’s for sure. I won’t take up more than my fair share of space here in the comments, but I am still uneasy about the whole thing, knowing that we have to do it again this year. I get the why of it, but it feels like there is no support for parents and children who have to process this kind of thing, often for the first time and in a very abstract way for most of us. Thank you for starting the conversation!

    • Exactly–it’s so abstract in a sense and in another, very frighteningly real. I think a tornado is hard to comprehend and so it doesn’t scare them quite the same as the idea of a guy with a gun coming into their classroom. And like I said above, my son processed the whole conversation during the drill and lumped it all together in a way that wasn’t intended. If I had known what happened during his first experience with a “hard lockdown” I could have prepared him better and answered questions. As it was, I did my best while trying not to cry as I imagined the Newtown children hiding in their own bathroom.

  5. What an interesting conversation. I hate that we have to talk about this at all but it certainly is an unfortunate reality. Interestingly, I have one very anxious daughter and I truly believe, like with so many other things, the way teachers handle these make all the difference. Somehow, my little one has been fine through these scary moments and I have to imagine that it all has to do with how the teachers have communicated before, during and after. What a world we live in…

    • Agreed, the teachers are vital in all this. I think my son’s teacher probably handled it well–she’s very sweet and caring with the children from what I’ve seen so far–but it’s the conversation afterward that I’d like to be part of.

  6. This makes me feel sick to my stomach. It’s terrible that we have to have this conversation, that this threat exists and that our little ones are subjected to it even if we are lucky enough that they never truly experience an emergency.

    My son’s school did have a lockdown due to a police incident nearby. It was a completely cautionary measure that I appreciated. The parents were alerted immediately. It was still frightening–for me not my son. Children for the most part are resilient and march on.

    We are really lucky though that our school communicates all of these types of activities in advance. Removing the surprise part of it can make a difference. I hope your school will learn from this and communicate more carefully with the parents.

    • Yes – communication is so very important (key, as they say). So many misunderstandings and grievances can be avoided. I understand that my son’s school has sent home notices in the past; I’m not sure why it wasn’t done this time.

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