26 August 2006

Lock Down

Not all children's fiction is kids stuff. It rarely has sex or immediate violence, but that doesn't mean that the adult themes that kids need to know about aren't very intense. Some parts of real life for elementary school aged kids these days are pretty intense too, like lock downs.

My first exposure to this subgenre with my own children was the Amber Brown series, by Paula Danziger about an elementary school aged girl dealing with the emotional intense reality of parents divorcing. (Judy Bloom can perhaps take credit for inventing the genre.) My daughter hasn't experienced divorce personally, but there is no child at her school who doesn't have at least one friend who has experienced it. They all need to know how to deal with this emotionally, and this kid's perspective view of parents who are honestly trying to do right by the children in the process is unflinchingly honest about the experience.

The first week of school this year, our bedtime story was I'm Still SCARED by Tomie DePaola. It too is told from the perspective of an elementary school aged kid, and like Amber Brown, incorporates diary entries. It begins on December 7, 1941 and ends on December 31, 1941. It is just as haunting and just as serious. For kids in the days after Pearl Harbor, one of the things that brought the new reality home was air raid drills. They never did those before, the teachers were circumspect about the nature of the threat, and harsh reality intruded into idylic childhood.

I didn't realize just how relevant this book would be until this evening, when parents from my daughter's second grade class gathered to meet each other socially at the beginning of the coming year and hear a little about what was in store.

The policy started before this year in the Denver Public Schools, but I didn't know about it until tonight. In addition to fire drills, the Denver Public Schools have "lock downs."

During a lock down, really a lock down drill, the doors are shut for half an hour. In the "red" drills, the children have to stay away from the windows and be still and quiet. In the less severe version of the drills, children can talk and mill around the classroom, but do have to stay there. It is largely a reaction to the Columbine Shooting and similar events.

Another part of the reaction to Columbine was also implemented at my children's elementary school last year. Every classroom was wired for and received a telephone and telephone number, so that teachers (or in a worst case scenario, students) can call for help, or receive calls warning them of impending danger. There are plenty of non-safety related reasons to have those phones, but the project was primarily a reaction to this fear.

The children find lock downs much more traumatic than fire drills. They are emotional and frightening. The children understand why they are held. But, it is hard to deride them for being hysterical. No American school was ever bombed in an air raid. The last time a nuclear bomb was launched in anger was in 1945 and a duck and cover routine wouldn't have made a nuclear any better. Violent acts in or near a school that makes a lock down the best knee jerk response happen someplace in the nation almost every year, sometimes multiple times. And, while Columbine shocked the nation, in part because no one thought that such a tragedy could happen in a suburban middle class school, the Denver Public Schools are, to be perfectly honest, the kind of place where everyone expects something like that to happen.

Who can blame them? One of the consequences of the fact that I read the newspaper every day, closely, is that my Denver is full of ghosts. This Wild Oats is the place where an estranged husband shot and killed his wife. This Korean grocery store parking lot is where a young man active in his church was killed trying to break up a fight. This K-mart is where a man who didn't get a job and went off his meds killed a woman and wounded another. This Safeway warehouse is where a young man who felt he was being discriminated against went amok. It could happen here, if not at my children's elementary school, at another one down the road.

I'm not convinced that practicing for these events will save any lives when an event like Columbine happens. The perpetrators will probably be aware of the anticipated response and use it to their own advantage. But, I can understood the instinct that drives lock downs, and it is generally a good one.

While no one can know when or where or precisely how one will happen next, maniacs who threaten public gatherings with weapons are a predictable tragedy. When you know that a threat exists, even if you are only fuzzy about the details, reasonsible community leaders take action to prepare as best they can for the threat. In this case, this means holding lock down drills. This is better than the response the system makes to a great many other predictable tragedies, like drop outs on a the jailhouse track, which is to do little or nothing.

Still, in this case, a lot of children have to endure a lot of system inflicted fear, which may do harm of its own, to be prepared for something that almost never happens in any individual school. This is a high price to pay for benefits which aren't very well established.

Cross Posted at Colorado Confidential.

1 comment:

Jude said...

I had a friend who is a Denver Public School teacher. During the week or two after Columbine, the school district suffered from a number of copycat threats which weren't covered in the press, and the elementary schools were in lock-down for several days. He described how horrible it was to teach in those conditions of day-long lock-downs.

Someone at a school told me that lockdowns are a legacy Columbine, but they were the idea of Roy Romer, although I haven't done the research to see if that's true. When I worked at a school, we practiced lockdowns. By high school, they're kind of fun. Even at elementary school, they become just another thing you do, like fire drills. Maybe they're scary at first, but they become routine, even at the elementary level.

I serve on the accountability committee at my son's school, and I did a spot security check which revealed that they have decent security. However, at the high school in our town, there are so many unmanned entrances and exits that it is highly vulnerable. They didn't seem to be too concerned. At the middle school, I have to get a pass to enter the school. At the high school, I stopped bothering to check in when I volunteered because no one ever asked me for a pass. But probably nothing will ever happen at that school either.