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First Person

‘I’ll die before all these kids die.’

Elementary school lockdown drills are commonplace now. Here’s what they’re really like.

Shelly is a first-grade teacher at an inner-city school on the East Coast.

Lockdown drills have always been a part of my job, but they used to be more of an afterthought. When I started teaching 10 years ago, drills would start with a code announced over the loudspeaker: “Would the (made up person) please report to the office?” This was a signal for teachers to lock their doors, pull their shades down, and hide in the corner.

After the 2016 attack at Ohio State University — a student ran into a crowd with his car and attacked people with a knife; authorities credited the lack of fatalities to the university’s lockdown and alert systems — my district launched a new active shooter response training program called ALICE. It stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. Kids in the lower grades start by reading a storybook about how sometimes, people go where they’re not supposed to be. The language is intentional: “intruder,” not “bad guy,” because a shooter could be a woman or a girl. We don’t want the kids to have a preconceived notion of what a shooter looks like. It might be a parent. It might be a neighbor.

My kids are first graders. They’re little. I have to make them realize that this is serious without scaring them.

Unlike our old drill, ALICE doesn’t start with a vague, coded warning. Instead, there will be an announcement, which the kids hear, with specific information: “There’s a guy with a hoodie who just walked past the office. He’s on his way to the B Wing.” Depending on the location of the threat, teachers make choices on how to respond:

Lock the doors and move everyone away. This is easier said than done. At my school, the doors lock from the outside, which means in the event of an emergency, a teacher would have to go into the hall and lock the door with a key. But in a crisis, the first thing you lose is fine motor control — which means it would be hard to calmly lock a door. When teachers brought this up during training, we were not given any solutions.

So we found a woman online who makes something called a “Lock Smock.” It’s a piece of fabric that fits over the latch of a locked door and allows you to keep coming in and out. In an emergency, you can unhook it from the door and slam it shut. The teachers bought 50 of them for $15 each, and paid for them ourselves.

Barricade. I have a rolling cabinet next to the entrance to my classroom. I’m supposed to shove it in front of the door. (In both of these scenarios, the kids are supposed to hide and stay quiet. In a real emergency, this would never work because they can’t stay quiet for two minutes!)

Evacuate. If your classroom isn’t near the threat, you’re supposed to get out of the building. Our classroom is on the first floor, so the evacuation route is through the window. Two students are designated to push a chair to the counter near the windowsill. The kids are supposed to climb over, sit on their bums, throw their feet over, jump out the window, and meet me at the meeting spot. We’ll always do this during a first practice drill, but not every time.

Counter. This is the action of last resort. If the shooter enters the classroom, we’re supposed to throw things —  staplers, pencil boxes, whatever is handyand do anything we can to distract him or her so more kids can escape. The adults and students in older grades practice this during any drill.

At the end of the drill, administrators walk through the halls and make note of the choices teachers have made. It lasts about 30 minutes total. Then we resume our day.

My kids are first graders. They’re little. They’ll ask questions like, “Why would someone be in here? Do intruders have guns?” Most are giggling and fooling around. It’s difficult because I have to make them realize that this is serious without going too far and scaring them. Sometimes there will be one crying. I will try to reassure them that this is just a drill and that other adults and I would do anything to keep them safe, so the best thing they can do is just listen and follow directions. In addition, sometimes parents will report that some children cried or were upset later that night, and I will make time to talk to that child the next day. Many do watch the news, so I’m careful to avoid telling them that this could ‘never’ really happen; I just say that we work very hard to keep them safe and this is how we make sure that our school is as safe as possible. 

Unfortunately, our neighborhood has a high crime rate. Many of my kids already have violence in their lives. For some, it’s a weekly or nightly occurrence. They’ll tell me things like, “the police were in my building, so mom said we had to stay inside.” I’ve had kids in dangerous situations at home where they’re hiding in closets. But they still don’t make the connection that this could also happen at school. This is their oasis.

And their families often don’t have the time or luxury to worry about hypothetical threats. Often both parents work second shifts, and the kids are babysat by the grandparents. When we send out a notice the night before a lockdown drill, I might have three parents out of 24 asking questions.

My own children attend school in a more affluent community, where parents have more time to be involved. They want to know everything about lockdown drills: why, when. Still, we can’t say it wouldn’t happen here. My husband is a police officer in another nearby town, so I know things that happen that don’t filter down to teachers. It’s not so rare, in his town, for people to be turned away at a school door. Maybe they’re under the influence, or angry about custody issues. It’s not that they all have a psychopathic plan. But they don’t belong there.

I think about those threats in my own classroom every day, whether there’s a lockdown drill or not. I know, on a logical level, that school shootings are rare. We don’t want to traumatize the kids or make them worry. But if you’re a teacher, those drills can’t help but make you think about what’s at stake. Not a week goes by that I don’t think about Sandy Hook, and the heroic actions and sacrifices made by so many teachers that day.

It’s fully on my mind that if there is a shooter in the school, I’ll die before all these kids die. Because I’m getting all these kids out. I’m not leaving without anyone. I’m not going to meet anyone at the meeting spot. I’m not leaving the classroom.

As told to Kara Baskin

Published on

Shelly — not her real name — has been an elementary school teacher for 10 years. She requested anonymity to protect the identities of her students.


Photo of a school lockdown drill in Hawaii by Phil Mislinski/Getty Images

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