Photo courtesy of Grigory Kruglov / Flickr

The New Normal: School in a Post-Columbine World

“I’m going to keep you as safe as I can.”

In a quiet classroom, Carolyn, a middle school health teacher, gives her students the most honest answer she can during a discussion on school shootings. The increasing frequency of active shooter events is shocking enough to now be a part of the school curriculum. As she opens the discussion, she asks the students to put their heads down and raise their hands if they feel scared at school. About twenty-five percent lift their hands each time. Do they have reason to be?

According to a Washington Post database, since Columbine in 1999, 144 children, educators and staff have died in school shootings. While that number may seem small, the alarming fact is that the same report estimated 228,000 students have experienced a mass shooting in their school. The act of a shooter choosing victims at random in the classroom is what shakes the nation--so much so that planning and training for such an event are now implemented in schools serving all age levels.

The fire drill remains a core element of school safety, but it has become part of a larger set of emergency procedures that children are required to learn. The initial response was to lock classroom doors and huddle students in corners. As shootings continue, new and improved methods have evolved to address the dynamic and chaotic nature of these tragedies. Dr. John Harutunian of Oak Hill Middle School in Newton, Massachusetts, explains the change.

“It’s been a progression,” he says. “Since the advent of Columbine, schools began doing lockdown drills, and over the past five to eight years, security consultants have come in, after evaluating effective practices with the ALICE protocol.”

The ALICE protocol was developed by police officers and provides an “options-based approach," where teachers assess the event and make critical decisions to protect students. Depending on the situation, teachers are forced to make split-second decisions in unnerving environments. Carolyn explained this additional responsibility required of teachers. If the attacker is far enough away, she might attempt to shepherd the children out of the school to safety. If this is not possible, she has to barricade the door with the help of her students. The children are helpful and cooperative during drills. They work together, pushing desks and heavy filing cabinets in front of the door, while Carolyn finishes the job by securing the fortress of furniture with a bungee cord supplied for this purpose. During this process, Carolyn also identifies a large object to keep at arm’s reach to throw at the assailant if they come in close contact.

The drills create a serious atmosphere among students and staff. As fire alarms sound, they saunter and chat while working their way out to the schoolyard. There is a stark contrast between this lackadaisical response and the focused silence observed during active shooter drills.

“When you’re in that lockdown mode... it's off-putting, it's not fun, it's not comfortable, it’s an emotional experience,” says Harutunian.

In Carolyn’s school, the mood is similar. These are nothing like fire drills. “The vibe changes,” she says, then pauses. “This is real.”

Despite the uncomfortable nature of these drills, they have become necessary in response to the growing number of “lone-wolf” attacks and mass shootings. “I always stress how important training is,” Chief William Evans, of the Boston College Police Department, emphasizes. “Repetition is key."

He understands first-hand that practice is a required prerequisite to effective emergency response. The highest-ranking member of the campus police force, Evans sits in front of an impressive array of photos and awards from his years of service in the Boston Police Department. He is well-known for his decisive leadership after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and his experience and performance eventually landed him in the top-cop position, serving as Commissioner from 2014-2018.

Lessons learned by law enforcement have influenced the evolution of active shooter training. The drills now present teachers and students with choices. Instead of following a prescribed procedure, the teachers have to apply the right course of action based on the situation at hand. Lockdown scenarios can present teachers with tough decisions.

“Once you close that door, you’re not allowed to open it, even for another child,” Carolyn adds, then pauses. “That’s the hardest thing.”

Today, teachers are required to be more than educators. They are protectors, guardians, and--if necessary--defenders. What is more, they must take on these roles in combat scenarios. When these teachers chose their field of work, did they know they could be expected to make life or death decisions under fire?

Dr. Harutunian says that teachers are not expected to be military trained. “They are expected to be thoughtful adults in a stressful situation, to react calmly and thoughtfully, using their inner strength to make the decision,” he says.

Inner strength is necessary for what teachers have to manage. Throughout these drills they must provide confidence to their students, offering enough information to keep them ready and safe, but without creating anxiety among students. It seems they are doing a good job. Eleven-year-old student, Hailey, rattles off the procedures for the different responses expected of her and her sixth-grade peers. They are ingrained into her memory.

“Code blue is for weather, so we stay away from glass. Code green is like when someone pukes or gets sick so they don’t let us in that hallway. Code yellow is a bomb threat. You leave like a fire drill but walk way further away. Code red is if there’s someone in the school. We lock down, close all the blinds, and hide silently,” Hailey describes the precautionary steps.

There is a fine line between building readiness and creating fear, and the approach must be appropriate for different age levels. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything sadder than my six-year-old son explaining his first lockdown drill and telling me, ‘If you stay really quiet and really still, they give you a sticker,’” reflects Jim Golby, the father of a young boy who recently began this training.

The educator’s responsibility in this era of active shooters does not lie solely in the preparation of students. They must also work to prevent these events from happening in the first place.

“All of this is predicated on who is going to be the active shooter,'' says Harutunian.

In his school, he stresses the importance of building strong relationships, making sure the students enjoy class and feel cared for. The teachers and staff at Oak Hill work hard to identify unmet needs among their students, to reach out and find the child who needs something he or she may not be getting. In a similar fashion, Carolyn looks for students who are isolated, those who are not communicating, and she works to open up lines of communication and get them assistance if needed.

Dr. Harutunian is especially passionate about this aspect of prevention. “The most important thing is to create an inclusive environment where kids feel safe and are getting the help they need. All adult eyes are on the students, looking to genuinely help, and this reduces the odds of a school shooter situation,” he says.

For decades, the fire drill has been an integral part of emergency readiness in schools, and it is a familiar routine. The same is now true for lockdown drills, but the unpredictable nature of active shooter incidents has created complexity. Educators are not merely following procedures, as for a fire alarm, but learning to make life-or-death decisions for a classroom full of children. Most importantly, they work every day to prevent students from being pushed to the edge, looking for the child in need of mental health care or extra compassion. They start each school day ready for the unknown. Will it happen here? Will it be one attacker? From which direction will they come? The questions the teachers ponder are echoed in the students' heads as well. Carolyn’s school shooting discussion is interrupted, as a student raises their hand to ask a pressing question.

“Are the windows bulletproof?”

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