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I Did Fire Drills. My Daughter Does Active Shooter Drills. It’s Not the Same.

School safety isn't a monolithic thing and shooters aren't just another threat.

Last week we received a letter from my daughter’s Catholic school. It concerned recently implemented updates to safety precautions. Reinforced doors. An additional 40 cameras throughout the school. Staff IDs. They also mentioned the new drills, the active shooter drills.

When I was in grade school, we had fire drills. Those were pretty standard: Line up. Go outside. Listen to your teacher. We also had storm drills to prepare for a hurricane that might arrive before students had a chance to go home. Teachers taught us how to move away from windows and gather in a secure shelter. Would such a storm ever come to the South Bronx? It seemed unlikely. Then Hurricane Gloria hit in 1985 and I had my answer. We were prepared and I knew why.

My parents had duck and cover drills; kids were taught to curl under their desks or head to a bomb shelter if they heard the sound of an air siren. It was a big worry for them. By the time I hit kindergarten, everyone new that grade school desks weren’t going to protect kids from a nuclear blast. No more duck. No more cover.

Now, my daughter has “Intruder Drills.” These are much different and all too common. At my daughter’s old school, a code of “Lincoln is in the building” broadcast over the loudspeaker triggers the drill. Children converge in a corner or hide in the coat closet, while the teacher locks the door, and turns off the lights. Children who find themselves in the bathroom lock the stall door and stand on the toilet seat so their feet don’t show underneath. They are taught to remain still and, above all else, quiet. They prepare for intimate violence.

At my daughter’s current school, it isn’t much different. When I asked my daughter how she felt about this, the first thing she told me was how scared they make her feel. The kids understand why they have to do this, she said, because they are aware of news and current events. She also told me how she doesn’t ever want to be caught in the bathroom during a drill and that, for a period of time after each drill, children rush through their bathroom rituals so as to get back to the classrooms as soon as they can.

She told me that she doesn’t see much use in the whole production because, most likely, the “intruder” will be a kid aware of the drill and the empty stalls and the full closets. If this shooter, likely a young man, means to harm kids, he will. My daughter is certain of this and she is scared.

I went to a grade school in what was considered at the time to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in NYC. I never remember being that scared.

We’re witnessing a generation forced to exist with the knowledge that they are not in control of their own safety. More specifically, we’re witnessing a generation of children come of age with full knowledge that they aren’t safe from each other. It’s not wind and it’s not the Russians (well, a bit). It’s the boy my daughter imagines. Our children know that kids have access to guns. They are keenly aware that an argument in the playground, a social rivalry, or a rebuffed advance by a romantic admirer may lead to a situation where they have to fear for their lives. This colors their experience of school and their view of the world.

There is no technology nor drill that can make our children feel safe. We parents have to trust that teachers will somehow fill that void, that they will be quick and steady enough to lock doors, usher children to their places, find stragglers. We silently have to trust that they will put themselves between our children and an assailant. We have to hope they will be the protectors.

What can we make of all of this? Looking back at the drills we conducted when I was a kid, and at those of previous generations, it’s obvious that we have never been in this situation before. Sure, old drills promoted fear of fires, storms, and superpowers, but those are big, singular things and there are clear measures in place in their event. There was an order to it. Now? It’s about evil. That’s a different kind of fear. 

It’s obvious that we do not know how the trauma of this time period will affect our children. Until we come up with way to prevent tragedy rather than mitigate it, the drills will remain the same and my daughter will remain scared.I believe we must do what we can so that this country will wake up and realize what is happening to our children, and take the proper steps towards preventing disaster, and not simply mitigating it. Until then, we can only hope that the drills, however traumatic, will remain exactly that.