What Not To Do in a Lockdown

Originally published on 11/23/14

I was at the school to work with teachers. I was set up in the counseling meeting room, where a few teachers were signed up to come get help. About 10:00 in the morning, I noticed all the counselors leave and go over to the admin building. I didn’t think much about it except to note that something unplanned seemed to be going on. I heard the counseling secretary tell a student that all the counselors were unavailable and would probably be so the rest of the day. “Odd,” I thought.

A few minutes later, the secretary came in to the room where I was and looked at me thoughtfully. “I can’t say anything, but we need to close all the blinds in here,” she said. That was not a small task, as the room is all windows on one side and partly on two others. I got up on the counter and helped her close the blinds, except for the one that had fallen down and not been repaired yet. As I did, I thought to myself, “There’s only one reason in a school to close blinds quickly…” As she left, I reminded the secretary that I was not on the school’s all-staff email list, and asked her to tell me if something came through that I needed to know. She agreed and left.

About a minute later, the head counselor came to me and in a quiet voice said, “There’s been a threat to the school, and [the principal] is going to call a lockdown and then release everyone for the day. You should go so you don’t get stuck here.” I did not have to be told twice. I started to gather my stuff, but was not quick enough. The PA came on, I heard the lockdown announcement, and I knew I was there for the duration.

There were about ten students in the building, most of them waiting to see a counselor for one reason or another. They were herded into a small staff lounge; I followed them in. Also in there were a substitute teacher and a college representative who happened to be in the building at the time. The counselors, secretary, and registrar went into the building’s copy room, next to the staff lounge. We turned the lights out and made sure no one was visible from an exterior window. Then we waited.

I realized I was the only district staff member in the room with these students (though not the only adult, which was helpful). A couple other students came in one at a time; they had been just coming into the school and were quickly herded into the nearest building. The first question we all had was of course, “What happened?” The second, unspoken as yet, was “How long will we be here?” Students asked me the first question, which of course I couldn’t answer. They didn’t really need me for that, though, because in the dark room were the lights of a dozen phones, searching for answers and sending out messages to friends and family.

The counselors came in occasionally to check on us; one of the first times, the head counselor told everyone that there had been a shooting threat against the school on social media; I believe she said it was on Yik-Yak. (If she didn’t say that, one of the kids quickly figured it out or heard it from a friend.) They were able to find the threat, read other students’ responses and messages, even download police scanner apps and listen to the broadcasts. (This was particularly unhelpful; at no point did they hear anything that even sounded like what was going on at their school.) Counselors came in with a sign-up sheet to get a list of everyone in the room. After 15 or 20 minutes, we decided that the room was concealed enough that we could turn on the lights.

Some students read, either books that they had with them or on their phones. Some did homework. Some played cards. Some watched YouTube videos. At one point, they decided to share what food they had, putting it out on the table for everyone to enjoy. I answered questions as best as I could; I had not gone through drills on this particular campus, but I was familiar with best practices for lockdowns. I tried to keep the mood light, but answered questions truthfully.

Here’s what we did NOT do: We did not panic. We didn’t set up trip wires. We didn’t barricade the door and huddle in paranoia. We did not set up obstacles, or sit by the side of the door waiting for an intruder who was just about to burst into the room. We did not improvise any weapons, paint our faces, chant around a makeshift fire, or slaughter any pigs.

I did silently think about what I would do in the unbelievably remote circumstance that I heard gunfire or saw a shooter. Having decided on a plan, I then turned my attention to other things. I did not (and still do not) take five minutes every morning to plan what I will do in the event of an active shooter. One student did mention that during lockdowns (and drills, presumably) one of his teachers sits next to the door with a baseball bat, ready to attack anyone coming in. I said nothing, but felt sorry for that teacher.

Before long, more pressing concerns arose: many of the kids had to use the bathroom. Since there were none in that building, we got permission from the police and administration to escort small groups of students across the quad to the student restrooms. The counselors did most of this work; I did lead one group of boys, but was not needed for other runs. Several times I offered my help to the counselors if they needed anything, but I realized that I was most valuable where I was, largely responsible for a group of students. No one needed another teacher wandering around campus getting in the way while trying to be helpful; the best thing I could do would be to keep these students calm and out of the way.

The time of the threatened attack came and went without incident. The students in my room speculated on why someone would (a) threaten a shooting and then (b) declare it on social media. This led to a very interesting conversation about pranks and their consequences; as well as despair, mental illness, cries for attention, and cries for help. I opined that I hoped this was merely the prank of a student who didn’t realize the serious consequences, rather than someone who was in such a dark place as to seriously contemplate such an act, whether or not they had the means to carry it out. (This appears to be the case, as of this writing.)

As the afternoon dragged on, it became apparent that any threat, whether or not it was real in the first place, was not going to materialize. Word started to come from administration about releasing students in phases, by administrators going room-to-room. Until that time, however, there were still students all over campus who needed to be escorted to the restrooms. The counselors went out to the different classroom buildings to be those escorts, while I waited with the students and other adults in the counseling building. At this point we did not feel the need to stay away from windows, so many of us moved into the more comfortable common seating area.

As the counselors came back, they began to share stories of what they found in classrooms. Several teachers had barricaded their doors; others had allowed students to pee into a trashcan in a back office. One counselor told of going to Mr. Baseball Bat’s room, opening the door as she was instructed to, and being forcibly pulled into the room by the teacher. I suppose she was lucky he didn’t just beat the shit out of her and ask questions later. He then didn’t want to let her leave, deciding on his own that it was too dangerous for her out on campus, despite her instructions and responsibilities, the police on campus, and the other counselors performing the same duties. This is where our district’s “active shooter” training led: to paranoid and fearful teachers who are MORE likely than the original threat to cause harm to someone.

A little while later, we were released from the counseling building. We had been there just about three hours. Everyone had been great, making sure that the students were safe and taken care of. It was certainly not how we had expected to spend our day, but we didn’t have control of that. What we did have control of was how we reacted, and in that aspect I’m proud of everyone in that building. I am very concerned, however, about teachers who think that they need to be ready to fight off intruders by themselves at the drop of a hat, regardless of anyone else around them. Our district has gone down a wrong road with the recent “active shooter” training, and has actually increased the likelihood of someone getting hurt, not by a shooter, but by knee-jerk reactions to unreasonable fear.