When I was a little girl, the elementary school that I attended in the suburbs of Chicago held regular fire drills, where we all lined up and calmly marched out of the school building in single file. The administration also held tornado drills that involved crouching down on both sides of the center hallway of the school, with our hands over our heads to protect them from flying debris. And of course, we had the duck-and-cover nuclear attack drills as well.
For some reason, the threat of a nuclear attack was more frightening than a tornado or fire. Perhaps it was because the latter two allowed for the possibility of survival. A nuclear attack presented a more existential threat; not only would we likely die, but the world, as we knew it would be destroyed. And early in the Cold War, a nuclear attack was a realistic threat as the Soviet Union raced ahead in nuclear weaponry. And so, we were raised with the fear that the narrator in the below video makes clear, “Always remember, the flash of an atomic bomb can come at anytime, no matter where you may be.”
The federal government was even willing to send out pamphlets showing how to build an affordable backyard bomb shelter. I know this as I tried desperately to talk my father into building one when I was in the fourth or fifth grade.
As a freshman in high school, I had an English class assignment to write an essay answering the question, “what three things will you take with you to the bomb shelter when the nuclear attack occurs?” The threat of nuclear annihilation was so pervasive that it became part of who we were as a generation.
On Christmas Day, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and resigned as general secretary. In a peaceful transition, Boris Yeltsin assumed the leadership of the Russian nation.
The news left me with an intense feeling of relief that took me a while to understand. Then I realized that the deeply buried tension I had carried since those long ago school days, a stress built upon a lifetime of tales of the apocalypse, abruptly relaxed.
When will today’s children recover from the fear that they now live with everyday of their lives?
Although, according to an NPR report last year, it may make sense to bring them back, duck and cover drills for nuclear attacks ended in the mid 1980s.
“Civil defense got very politically controversial in the 1980s,” [nuclear weapons historian Alex Wellerstein, at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey] says. “And a lot of people, especially on the left, essentially argued that civil defense was a waste of money at best, because it wasn’t going to be effective, and at worst it was an insidious plan to make people complacent.”
But the very existence of these drills impacted my generation, radicalizing some.
Some of those children ended up participating in the social movements of the late 1960s through the early 1980s. A number of activists have pinpointed school civil defense efforts as their radicalizing moment. Garrison collects some examples: Joan Baez recalled that she refused to participate in a school air-raid drill in the mid-1950s and got on the front page of the local paper for doing so. Todd Gitlin remembered school bomb drills as a moment of existential fear: “Whether or not we believed that hiding under a school desk or in a hallway was going to protect us from the furies of an atomic blast, we could never quite take it for granted that the world we had been born into was destined to endure.” Robert K. Musil, an anti-nuclear activist, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1982 that a childhood filled with media coverage of atomic tests and duck-and-cover drills left him numb and preoccupied. “I particularly recall the early atomic tests on television, that showed a model house erected by the Army crumbling and disintegrating in the blast,” he wrote (he’s probably talking about this).
As Alex Wellerstein wrote to me in an email: “The argument I would make is that hiding under your desks from the nuclear threat makes it real and ‘embodied’ in a way that pretty much no other approach can do. It’s not like being lectured or even looking at a pretty map with circles drawn on it. It’s you. It’s your body. It’s your threat.”
Today, the threat that is being made real for millions of school children is that someone they know may try to kill them. At school. Today’s students do not practice duck and cover, but lockdown protocols, or active shooter drills, in order to protect themselves.
The Washington Post has done a deep dive into what available information we have on school shootings to learn how many school children have been impacted by mass shootings. Since the NRA/Republican Party has shut down the CDC’s ability to collect and analyze any data on shootings in schools (or anywhere else), the Post used “news articles, open-source databases, law enforcement reports and calls to schools and police departments.” They originally published their findings in May of this year, when they found that since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, 187,000 children at 193 primary and secondary schools had experienced a campus shooting during school hours. On December 19, they updated their results with further investigation:
The count now stands at more than 220,000 children at 225 schools.
The Post has found that at least 143 children, educators and other people have been killed in assaults, and another 289 have been injured.
In 2018 alone, there have already been 25 shootings — the highest number during any year since at least 1999. Still, school shootings remain rare, and only a tiny percentage of the tens of millions of students in America ever experience them.
And while it is true that only a tiny percentage of students experience an actual school shooting, the existence of mass murders at schools and the introduction of lockdown drills has changed the way all teachers and students see their world.
Since the Columbine shooting, these drills have become the go-to response of schools across the nation. Children, as young as pre-school aged, are taught how to silently hide from a killer in their classrooms. James Hamblin, MD, writing for The Atlantic, reports:
Ryan Marino, an emergency-medicine physician at the University of Pittsburgh, recalled that his school had adopted the drills during that period, after a student was found to have a “death list” and access to guns. He told me the drills didn’t seem real until he was 12, and a fellow student coughed during one of the drills. “The teacher told us that if this had been real, we would all be dead.”
“That single experience shaped my childhood,” Marino said. “Having to practice and prepare for a peer coming to my school and shooting at me and my friends was something that really changed the overall atmosphere. Looking back, it was a major shift in how the world felt.”
The overwhelming majority of lockdown drills involve locking and barricading the classroom door and silently hiding in a corner of the room or in a closet. But an alternative, more aggressive stance, is being adopted by some school districts. After all, the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had all been subjected to lockdown drills for years, and still seventeen students and faculty members died on February 14, 2018.
Programs like ALICE, (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate), encourage a more pro-active reaction to an active shooter situation. In this and other similar programs, students and teachers are encouraged, as a last resort, to throw classroom objects at the attacker, books, laptops, chairs, or to swarm and disarm the attacker. These techniques though, have not been proven effective, according to Ken Trump, writing for the National School Safety and Security Services:
This reinforces what a number of experienced school safety professionals have pointed out for years: There is a substantial history of more than a decade and half showing lockdowns as a proven best practice. There is not one documented instance of an ALICE-trained class applying the controversial tactic of throwing things and attacking an armed gunmen in an actual K-12 active shooter incident.
While lockdown drills may have been best practice in the past, they have been unable to prevent the mass murders of 143 students and faculty. The fact that the newer techniques have never been used in an actual shooting is not stopping some schools from adopting the protocol. And even the federal government seems to be leaning in this direction, according to an March 2018 article in Vox:
The FBI’s 2013 report, published with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also urged schools to consider that typical lockdown drills may not [be] enough. They suggested running off school property if possible, or hiding in a locked room if necessary, but even went so far to suggest fighting “the shooter to survive and protect others from harm.”
However, either type of drill, whether it is a straight-forward lockdown or one of the newer counter-measures drill, poses a possible danger to the psychological well-being of the students. From The Atlantic article:
In any case, preparedness drills always change the baseline level of risk that people perceive. This heightening can manifest as stress and anxiety, not to mention changing the way kids understand how people treat one another—to even consider violence an option, not in some abstract way.
Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, studies how we assess risk when it comes to our health. “The more prepared we are, the more heightened our sense of risk,” she told me. “And one potential effect we haven’t considered is how these kinds of preparedness activities affect kids psychologically, and could increase a sense of feeling at risk. They really expand the ways in which we feel increasingly under siege.”
Drills prepare us to make decisions and take actions during events that would ordinarily cause most people to panic. They are supposed to help save lives, not destroy them. But I question whether the price that these children will pay for the continued success of the NRA is equitable. Is it fair for an eight-year-old child to be afraid to attend school just so that an NRA backer can sell a few more AR-15s? Is it right for children to be expected to defend themselves from armed attackers with books and screams? Or for teachers to perform as police officers when threatened by a school shooter?
And will there ever come a Christmas for them when the burden is released, and the tension relieved? Will they ever experience the rush of tears as they are freed from a fear they buried deep inside?
Classroom shooter drills, though currently essential, are an expensive, wasteful use of educational resources that can have long-term detrimental effects on students who participate in them. Controlling the source of the threat, like guns, is a far more cost-effective manner of handling the problem. It would also place the burden of our gun obsessed culture on the members of society who are adults instead of allowing it to be shouldered by our children.