Esther Cepeda: Students need lockdown training
CHICAGO — Forty-eight hours before a high-school senior in a suburb of Denver burst into his school, shooting a student and then killing himself, a concerned mom asked, on Slate magazine, whether American school kids should be subjected to routine lockdown drills.
Her timing was impeccable.
Not so we could collectively knee-jerk respond, "Yes, of course!" after this latest incident. (Though it can't be ignored that students interviewed at the crime scene told reporters that because of their consistent lockdown drill practice, they knew exactly what to do in the event of gunshots in their school.)
She was on cue because the Colorado shooting underscores how ordinary these events have become for detached observers — and how important it is for us to acknowledge their role in our lives.
"I find myself joining many other parents who worry that in teaching our children how to behave when somebody storms their classroom with a gun, we have unloosed something dramatic upon them without much serious reflection. Lockdowns are simply what we do now," columnist Dahlia Lithwick wrote in the article "Lockdown Nation."
Though the alarmist subtitle "We routinely terrify and traumatize kids to spare them terror and trauma" implies that such drills scare children, the author herself notes how unremarkable such preparations have become.
"I don't recall any serious national public dialogue about lockdown protocols or how they became the norm. It seems simply to have begun, modeling itself on the lockdowns that occur during prison riots, and then spread until school lockdowns and lockdown drills are as common for our children as fire drills, and as routine as duck-and-cover drills were in the 1950s," Lithwick said.
I'd bet that the average parent doesn't even acknowledge lockdowns because they're so routine since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that kids never bother mentioning them.
Not once have my sons responded to the nightly question about what happened at their school that day with "We learned what to do if someone burst into our school intending to kill us."
What's worse than passive acceptance of the need for preparedness training is that, when such tragedies strike, there seem to be two typical responses from adults.
Some willfully immerse themselves in the drama — internalizing anxiety or engaging in competitive empathy on their social-media networks — letting the instance hit home more than is absolutely necessary and sowing fear in the young people around them through their overreactions.
Others seek to make the spaces they share with young people as free of others' tragedies as possible. They might remain open to answering questions or offering reassurances, but generally carry on without mentioning nearby school emergencies or making a fuss.
Is stoicism the right way to cope with the terror that plays itself out with increasing frequency in communities across the United States?
Well, it beats getting hysterical over every instance of campus violence and making children fear school over a statistically unlikely event.
But it's probably no better than the fact that, as a country, we really haven't engaged in national dialogue about school safety in the age of the campus murderer archetype.
I admit that my family errs on the side of taking lockdown drills for granted in the idealistic belief that they are just that — exercises that will probably never be necessary to deal with real situations.
Yet, chillingly, it never seems to fail that members of communities who have just survived an act of on-campus violence tell newspaper and television reporters, "You just think you were in an area where it would never happen," as did the father of a student at the Colorado school. His daughter was quoted in a news story saying, "You'd never think it would happen at your school."
None of us do, which implies an unpleasant reality that to keep our children safe we may all have to establish the assumption that such horrors really could hit home.
We need to hurry up and kick off that national dialogue by exercising a little follow-through on our kids' school training.
It's time to begin drama-free conversations about extreme school violence with our children, neighbors, school administrators and school boards as if such a frightening possibility could someday come true.