You have to get them in the closet. You have to get them to pretend not to be there. You have to police your own emotions as well as theirs — but be sure not to use that word, “police,” out loud, because it has different connotations to different kids. You have to call it an “activity,” not a “game,” according to one elementary school teacher, because games are fun and usually involve laughs and shrieks, and your main job is to keep these 4- and 5-year-olds quiet as possible, for as long as it takes to be safe. However long that may take, and however uncertain that end state may be.
Just as the “duck and cover” drills of Cold War school kids typified the nation’s fear of a nuclear war with the Soviets, lockdown drills are quickly coming to represent America’s underlying fear of gun violence. The difference is that World War III never happened, and mass shootings do, dozens or hundreds of times per year, depending on who’s keeping count.
It may come as little surprise that the days following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon on October 1 saw an uptick of school lockdowns across the country. The day of the murders, there were seven; the next day, a Friday, there were 12. In all, across grade levels, there were at least 79 reports of school lockdowns between the UCC shooting and the following Thursday, October 8. Some of those reports involved school districts or counties locking down multiple facilities, so the total number of lockdowns is higher still.
But the elevated numbers following the Oregon shooting do not tell the whole story. The Trace also tracked media reports of lockdowns during the week of September 24, counting 52 of them during the seven days before the latest school massacre. Add that total to the post-UCC number, and at least 100 lockdowns made the news during those two weeks. That’s an average of about 10 lockdowns due to a potential threat per school day. Of the 10 school days tracked, only one was incident-free. The fact is that even before Umpqua, lockdowns had become an intrinsic part of American school life.
Geographically, the scares hit each part of the nation: California, Montana, Ohio, New York, North Carolina, Utah, Texas. Virginia had the most lockdown incidents, 14 in all. A community college in Philadelphia locked down. High schools and middle schools locked down. Elementary schools. Preschools.
Many of the lockdowns we noted were immediate responses to a clear threat in the community. In Northglenn, Colorado, an elementary school went into bunker mode after a drive-by shooting injured a young man walking next to the school. In the suburbs of Miami, a man carrying a whip and horseshoe forced a lockdown after attempting to break windows at the Henry S. West Laboratory School.
In just as many cases, the echoes of gunshots in our collective conscious — at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, at Sandy Hook — conjured threats where there were none, and schools went on lockdown due to reports of firearm sightings or gunshots proven afterwards by the police to be false reports. In Pittsville, Wisconsin, a lockdown cancelled classes after a parent overheard what they believed was a student threatening to bring a gun into school. Authorities learned that the “student’s statement had been taken out of context and misunderstood.”
Enough students have come to schools armed — 29 did so between the start of this school year and September 21, according to a separate review of media accounts — that many parents can be forgiven for their edginess. When it comes to the safety of children in the face of readily available weaponry, it grows harder to draw a bright line between prudent precautions and overprotectiveness.
It’s not hard to imagine that lockdown culture has a lasting impact on today’s youth. Students at Apple Valley Middle School in North Carolina will likely remember that Thursday in September when a woman with a gun in her car put their school on lockdown during an outdoor gym class, forcing them to crawl under a fence to hide in nearby woods. Students at a Pueblo West, Colorado, middle school might be a little jumpier the next time they practice a lockdown, after an escaped suspect forced police to turn their school’s most recent drill into a real-world pursuit.
In a mournful speech after the Umpqua killings, President Barack Obama openly fretted that America had “become numb” to gun violence: “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine.” But for schoolchildren in particular, at an age where they’re just figuring themselves and society out, the opposite of Obama’s fears may be true: The routine may be hypersensitizing them. “We ask our kids to pile themselves silently into their classroom closets, and we tell them this is what freedom looks like,” Slate legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick writes of lockdown culture and its effects. “We routinely terrify and traumatize them in an effort to spare our kids terror and trauma.”
Where Obama and Lithwick agree is in describing this heavily armed and unpredictable state as a new normal. In this state, violence and measures to limit its damage are both taking a toll.
With reporting by Olivia Li
[Photo: Phil Mislinski/Getty Images]