Just a week ago, as classes resumed after lunch, the head secretary’s urgent voice came over the p.a., “All staff and students: Go into lockdown immediately! This is NOT a drill! Go into lockdown IMMEDIATELY!”
We hold lockdown drills a few times a year so that if there were ever a real emergency teachers and students would know what to do: where to sit, how to secure the room, what protocols to follow.
It’s surprising how well a class of Grade 8s behaves during a lockdown drill. You might think that students at that age would be inclined to misbehave, but they don’t. There’s an unspoken thought in everyone’s mind. The lockdown is one drill the kids take quite seriously.
Lockdown drills are eerie. We sit silently in the dark waiting for the police. They peek in at us through the windows to see if our presence is noticeable through the blinds. We hear their heavy footsteps advancing down the halls as they rattle the classroom door handles one-at-a-time to ensure each door is locked. For some children, who are struggling with trauma in their lives, or perhaps with autism or intellectual disability, the scene is quite terrifying; for all of us, it’s unnerving.
One time, an unannounced drill had caught a teacher in the middle of an exam. Seeing the students still in their desks, a police constable, wanting to emphasize the seriousness of the matter, had opened the door and announced in a loud voice, “You’re all dead!!” We have had conversations with the police since then, letting them know that this is unnecessary, and explaining the importance of knowing about drills in advance. There have been many exhausting discussions about how to end lockdowns safely and confidently. You can’t prepare for everything, but you can lessen the risk.
A lockdown can be triggered for a variety of reasons: an angry, violent student or parent, a police incident outside the building; but the one reason that lurks in the back of everyone’s mind is one that we don’t like to talk about. As teachers, we try to reassure ourselves with statistics. Such incidents are exceedingly rare in Canada, but still…
A few years ago, a teenaged child in my school had written some terrifying threats on a bathroom mirror – threats that contained specifics: date and time. It was the day before Christmas break. The teachers stayed in the school to manage the safe evacuation of some 900 students while the police surrounded and combed the school and its periphery. After the all-clear had been given, we held a debriefing meeting. Everyone went home for Christmas break that year slightly rattled.
So in this most recent lockdown, we knew what to do. I navigated my way through the overcrowded classroom, slowly and deliberately. It would not do to stumble against a desk on my way to the door (The modern classroom has only one door in order to maximize space.). Checking the lock, I surveyed the hallway. Empty. But then suddenly from around the corner came a girl I recognized, speeding desperately in her wheelchair to get to her home room before she was locked out. I beckoned her to come into my room, but just as I did her own teacher, another 10 metres down the hall, popped out of his room and called her name. “Hurry,” he half-whispered. “Come in.”
I turned back to my classroom, and took in the scene with a quick glance. I didn’t have to say a word to the students. They were already under desks, frightened and still. (This wasn’t right. They were supposed to be against the far wall, but too late now. It was more important that they be still.) The skylight blinds had been shut a couple days before. Thank goodness for that, because shutting them would require me to climb up onto desktops to reach the chains. The back-wall window blinds were closed already. I pushed shut a couple of laptop computers that had been left open on student desks. Time to take my position.
It’s funny how calm you can become when you are helpless. I spoke to the students in a quiet voice, hoping to stave off any panic. I reminded them to NOT use their cellphones as the light from the screens would make us visible, and the police would need all cellular lines clear.
I am embarrassed to admit it, because it seems overly dramatic, but throughout the ordeal, I was trying to think of ways to protect the students. What would I do if someone tried to get into the room? Was there anything I could do if someone just started shooting into the windows? Really, there was no way to put myself between a gunman and the kids. I felt vaguely disappointed that I couldn’t protect them. I tried to dismiss these silly thoughts. “There is no gunman,” I thought. “Don’t be absurd.”
After a few minutes (maybe two or three) the principal’s voice shattered the silence over the p.a system. He explained that there had been a police incident outside and we had been asked to lock the building down to keep a fugitive from gaining access to the school. He assured us that all exterior doors had been locked. As a precaution we should stay in classrooms and keep all exterior shutters and blinds closed until an all-clear was announced. Classes could resume.
One girl, unready to concede that the threat was completely over, stayed under her desk. And of course, I just let her.
Not a week goes by that I don’t think of dreadful things. All of us teachers share an uneasiness we try to ignore: we know so very many students, many who have reason to hate us. To some of them we have had to give bad news – lessons about consequences: what happens if you fail to meet a deadline or to follow directions. We have taken stands against their abusive speech to us or to one another, or just to their general misbehaviour or rudeness. We have intervened in bullying situations in ways that bullies and their parents have seen as unfair. We have chastised students for engaging in misogynistic, homophobic or racist language. We are often faced with angry parents or students. We don’t ignore them when they want to be ignored. We have made ourselves targets.
What if one of these kids or their parents snap?