School Daze — Reading, Writing, And Reality

It’s back to school time, and reading, writing, and arithmetic are not all that students are facing. What they encounter at school these days is a cold hard dose of reality. They are learning a whole lot of bad exists in the world, and that bad often rears its ugly head in the school house.

Back when I was in elementary school, the biggest danger we students could imagine was a fire in the building. We regularly had fire drills where we learned to calmly and quickly line up and exit the school building and go to a designated spot safely away from the burning structure. Did these drills scare us? Heck, no. It was quite fun to go outside and have a break from the normal classroom routine.

Things became a little darker when I was in high school. We students experienced bomb threats. Someone would call the front office and claim to have planted a bomb in the school. The building was evacuated, and the students would typically go sit in bleachers on the athletic field. Were we scared? Heck no! These threats coincidentally occurred when a test or anticipated pop quiz loomed in some class. We weren’t concerned that it was a terrorist calling in the threat; of course it was just an ill-prepared student.

Fast forward to 2019, the year my grandson has started first grade. It’s a different, and scarier, school environment for him and all other  students than the one I grew up in. They have to face the reality that at any time someone might try to kill them right there on the school grounds. Forget test anxiety; students may need to be more concerned about surviving the school day than about passing a test.

You don’t even have to set foot on school property today to get that safety and security are huge concerns. All the schools in our county are now surrounded by fencing to keep the bad guys out. Put a little concertina wire on top, and the grounds might start resembling correctional rather than educational institutions. Oh, and the doors to the building and to the classrooms where classes are occurring are kept locked. Sure the bad guys are locked out, but students may get that locked in goodness feel just like they were in jail.

Preparation for entering this risky environment begins before the school year starts. It used to be that students would stock up on lined notebook paper, pencils, and erasers. The current must have item for students is bullet-resistant backpacks. TuffyPacks sell for between $129 and $149, and Skyline backpacks go for $119 for kids and around $199 for adults. These backpacks are touted as being like wearing a police vest. Sadly, though, these backpacks don’t protect against military-style weapons. Geez! What good are they?

But it’s not enough to have the gear, students have to know what to do to get it in gear if an emergency arises. School are engaging in risk management and taking preventive steps to deal with situations which are unthinkable but could still happen. What do they do? Active shooter drills! Such drills came into use after the Columbine shooting in 1999. According to a May 2019 piece by Yahoo News, up to 95% of schools in this country have held a drill or lockdown in recent years to prepare for such violence.

While it might be fun to have something bearing your name, I shudder to think that one violence prevention training bears my name. ALICE training it is. That stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate. Alice is not in Wonderland if this training is necessary; it is more like being in the Twilight Zone.

Are active shooter drills a good thing? Well, certainly they enhance everyone’s awareness of risks. But therein lies the problem. Take a kindergarten student for example. Will he feel prepared to deal with an intruder event by undergoing such a drill or will he be more likely to be stressed and anxious about being gunned down before he gets to eat his PB&J sandwich for lunch? I’m thinking that there has to be some psychological trauma to thinking there really is a Boogeyman, and he’s coming to the school to get you with a gun. President Trump  falls in the trauma causing camp on this question. He’s stated that active shooter drills are “very bad for children.”

And why might these drills be bad for children? I’m sure we can all agree that these drills are upsetting to students. It has been well established that a sense of safety and security in childhood is tied to mental health later in life. Do we want little ones to become Chicken Little early in life with the sense that they sky (or at least bullets) might be falling any minute while they are in school?

And what if the active shooter is a student? If he’s been through the drills, he knows what the procedures are and how to use them to his advantage. Take the Parkland shooting for example. The shooter, an expelled student, had been through numerous such drills while a shooter at the school. He pulled a fire alarm which he knew would trigger the procedure for students to evacuate the building, i.e., become sitting ducks for him to fire upon.

But active shooter drills won’t prepare students for all the violence which they might encounter in the school house. Let’s not forget bullying, gang violence, fights, etc. Home schooling is not a viable alternative to keeping students safe from violence. Students are more likely to be abused by a parent than to be shot in school. And the home is a big source of weapons for students who do attend school. According to CDC’s School-Associated Violent Death Study, firearms used in school-associated homicides and suicides came from the perpetrator’s home or from that of relatives or friends.

While it is a laudable goal for students to learn in a safe school environment, it is not always going to be an achievable goal. The school environment mirrors that of the community in which it exists. If violence is occurring outside the newly fenced school grounds, it isn’t a quantum leap to expect that the school environment will reflect that reality.

How did we end up in such a violent society today? Would that we could go back to a simpler time decades ago when there were no active shooter drills. Oh, wait. There used to be drills for students to hide under their desks for a possible nuclear bomb attack during the Cold War. Never mind. There always has been and always will be violence on this Earth and it will inevitably impact our youngsters in school.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do active shooter drills prepare students for emergencies or cause trauma? Has our society become more violent as the years have passed? Do you worry about the safety of your children/grandchildren when they are in school? Will you rush out and buy a bullet-resistant backpack for you or for your favorite student after reading this post?