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As A Teacher, I’d Like To Tell You Your Kids Are Safe at School. But They’re Not

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“Should we be near a window, or under the window?” One of my students asked as she popped her curly red head up from beneath her desk.

My heart stopped. I didn’t know — and I knew it didn’t matter. It was my 4th-period English class with my freshmen and we were conducting a “lockdown drill,” in order to prepare for a potential shooting on campus.

I fidgeted with my lesson book I was holding in my hands. My voice faltered slightly as I said, “If you can be underneath or between the windows, just not in front of it, that would be best.” I sounded so confident that I almost believed myself.

But really, I was thinking: When did I become the authority on what to do during a potential shooting or school invasion?

Such drills have become commonplace at school districts across the country. In fact, in a post-Columbine world, it’s almost a no-brainer. After all, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, more than 14 school shootings have already happened in 2018 — and it’s early February.

As our drill was underway, I pretended to lock the classroom door, acutely aware that I didn’t have a key for said door. I had already alerted the school’s administration, to which I was told, “the key was lost.” There was no key. And changing the locks and getting a new key — well, that was out of the question. The whole exercise couldn’t have been more ironic (a word I happened to be teaching to my freshmen class at the time).

What better metaphor is there for how we are like hamsters in an endlessly spinning wheel? We pretend we can prevent horror; we pretend that we are capable of protecting others; we pretend to have more control than we do. We pretend violence won’t happen here, not in our homes or our schools. We pretend things are fixable when they aren’t.

That key you think you have? That door you think is locked? It’s not. There is no key — and maybe there isn’t even a door, just like you can’t actually keep your kids in a safe bubble. We want to, and we try to, but we can only do so much with an invisible key to an open door.

So, there I was, teaching my students to dive under desks, making them believe I’d save them from a gunman. I convinced my students they were safe, and that if I said things would be OK, they would be. They believed me, just much like how they believe what their parents would tell them. Sure, I was “just” their teacher, but I honestly spent more time with them than a lot of their own parents.

It’s easy, even for adults, to believe our own lies about everything being OK. Because, in reality, we can’t really promise anyone anything. We break promises all the time, intentionally or not.

But this is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that there’s now a school shooting simulation to train teachers on how to handle these incidents. On the surface, it seems like a great thing: Be prepared for everything that could happen! I can imagine, as a former teacher, that parents may feel calmer knowing their kid’s teacher was at least prepared.

shooting

From the video simulation.

But, to me, it seems like another example of how technology makes us think we’re prepared, if not actually preparing us for anything. (Ever ace lessons from a foreign-language app? How’d it go actually speaking that language when you arrived in that country?)

The digital simulation is realistic; complete with sound effects like gunfire and children screaming. John Verrico, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security — which funded the $5.6 million program —told the New York Times: “It is a very traumatic, very panicky situation. We tried to make the environment just that disturbing.”

Meanwhile, Ken Trump, a school security consultant who also spoke to the Times seemed skeptical, at best, saying, “I would much rather see school staff trying to practice a lockdown between class changes than sitting in front of a computer. I think we’re just sort of grasping for solutions that have a wow impact to them, but they are bypassing the fundamentals.”

I, too, wonder if simulated video games about school shootings are actually necessary — or even helpful — versus a typical drill. There’s something inherently more violent about participating in a simulated event — replete with potentially triggering sound effects.

And really, what are you supposed to do during a school shooting? As a former teacher, I asked myself this often — and never found an answer. There are so many variables. If you’re between periods, what happens when everyone is running in all directions? What happens if a shooter does come into your classroom — especially if your door doesn’t actually lock? Do teachers become human shields? And even if a teacher instinctively makes that choice, how can one person’s body shield 30 kids? In these situations, there are always too many victims. (Hint: One victim is too many).

And that’s the problem. There’s too many victims, and too many shooters, and not enough legislation preventing these shootings from happening. Teachers across the U.S. are taught to protect their students by barricading doors and turning off cellphones and sometimes hiding under their desks. But perhaps what we should be teaching our students — and each other — is not to shoot in the first place.

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