Parents Talk Back

What are 'intruder drills' teaching our children?

February 10, 2014 

A young high school girl, blood pouring down her face from a bullet hole near her temple, laughed with her friends.

This was the picture that caught my eye.

She wasn’t really injured. She’s a member of the drama club at Troy Buchanan High School in the outskirts of suburban St. Louis. She and several other thespians volunteered last month to help re-create a school shooting as part of an active intruder drill. It gave school officials, teachers and first responders a chance to practice what would happen in such a worst-case scenario.

Principal Jerry Raines said it’s the second active-intruder drill at the high school and the 12th one in the district this year. The drills take place with adults and the students who are re-enactors, not the entire student body.

That’s not necessarily the case in other districts around the country.

Masked “intruders,” armed with guns, fired blanks at a group of teachers in a library in a rural Oregon school last year. A student at Central York High School in New Jersey writes about the deafening noise when armed police officers burst into her dark classroom to “rescue” the students during a realistic intruder drill. An El Paso district took it a step further with a surprise intruder drill so realistic that students sent panicked texts to parents.

Drills of any sort – fire, tornado, earthquake – are believed to save lives because they reduce the panic in an actual emergency. It makes sense to test systems to make sure the school staff and police officials know what to do to protect students in any kind of emergency.

Shootings shouldn’t seem as inevitable as the forces of nature, but these days, they do.

A recent Associated Press analysis finds that there have been at least 11 school shootings this academic year alone. That doesn’t include colleges and universities, malls and movie theaters, where shooters have also opened fire.

So how do we prepare our children to respond?

My fifth-grader described what happens during a lockdown or intruder drill at her school.

“The teacher makes sure we are all lined up against the wall, where no one can see us. She rolls down paper on the windows and makes us stay silent until they say ‘all clear,’ ” she explained. “I bet it’s only 10 minutes, but it feels like an hour.”

So, the defense we’ve given our children since massacres at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook is often: Turn off the lights, stay quiet and hide.

That’s certainly easier than trying to make even the smallest reforms to the country’s gun laws. Congress hasn’t been able to pass gun control legislation on assault weapons and background checks, which the vast majority of Americans support, because of the power of the gun lobby. School security is an industry now, with trainers and equipment and realistic drills meant to convince us that teaching children to dodge bullets at school is somehow a normal part of growing up.

Children of the ’50s and ’60s may remember air raid or “duck and cover” drills to survive a possible atomic attack during the Cold War. If students saw a flash of light outside (possibly from a bomb), they were instructed to kneel under their desks with their hands over their heads and necks – never mind the radiation fallout.

These days, no one practices surviving a nuclear attack. Our security rests on keeping such weapons out of the hands of madmen.

Today’s parents didn’t grow up rehearsing what to do if a classmate walked into their school firing rounds of bullets into the hallways. We didn’t grow up with scenes of slain first-graders shot dead in their classrooms.

When our children get older and ask us what we did to best protect them from school shootings, we might tell them about more police officers in schools, metal detectors, surveillance cameras and intruder drills. But they might have a different answer for their own children. This generation, which is growing up with the threat of gun violence so real that they have re-created scenes from a horror movie for the sake of their own safety, may feel different about the ease of access to the machines capable of such depravity.

When you have to imagine yourself getting shot, and your teacher hiding you – year after year since you were 5 years old – that creates some sort of impression. When a threat is so real to you that you can hear screams and shots fired and smell sweat during the trial runs, that changes a child’s perception of his safety, despite the fact that schools remain one of the safest places for children.

If a homicidal young man armed with semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition breaks into a school, it’s not a matter of whether any innocent people will die. It’s a matter of how many.

That’s the reality our children face.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.

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