Under My Desk, Newspaper over My Head, Waiting for a Flash and a Big Bang -- Thoughts from a Teacher

My first responsibility as an educator is to make sure my students are safe at all times. This includes managing the classroom climate, modifying lesson plans for students, and knowing them, as well as the culture they are a part of. This is a huge undertaking. It also includes keeping them safe during an active shooting episode.

After completing 40 hours of online Safe Schools training this week, I feel I have a better understanding of what it takes to keep my students safe. The list goes on and on:

  • types of fire extinguishers – check
  • de-escalation strategies – check
  • signs of abuse –check
  • active shooter strategies – wait a second! The training pointed out that only 27% of mass shootings occur in schools. ONLY 27%!

Growing up in the 1960’s, I and my classmates were taught to protect ourselves in a nuclear blast by crouching under our school desk and covering our head with newspaper. I fondly remember using my Big Chief tablet as a safety shield. It was nice under the desk, cozy and a welcome change in the everyday routine.

Nobody mentioned to us that in the event of nuclear detonation we would have seconds before we were vaporized. If we were lucky.

We were oblivious as we happily sat under our desks with newspaper veils, only wishing we had gotten the section with the comics.

The students I teach now are anything but oblivious. They know the threat is real and while they laugh it off and act cool while we do the safety drills they are paying very close attention. They have been bombarded with information since birth. They have practiced drills for just about everything and know the code words used and behavior expected in each scenario. All born after 9/11, they have lived their entire lives in the shadow of the Twin Towers. They continuously consume images of war and vitriol on TV and social media. Columbine is history to them, and each new school shooting is just another expected event.

In 1993, well before Columbine, my theater department was part of a hostage/crisis/shooter drill. We all were given roles to play; we wore wrist bands based on who died and who did not; another color band was for those who were to be taken hostage and my job as the teacher was to push the emergency button, give coherent information to the person who answered, get the students out of the room, find a safe place to take the students to and hide. The goal of the drill was to coordinate with law enforcement, school district officials and SWAT.

December 20, 1993 was the first day of Winter Break. I was “teaching” a social studies class. Cameras were everywhere. (We had all filled out comprehensive liability forms.) Two young men walked into the classroom with Mac 10 weapons and immediately ordered us to the floor. They pushed me to the ground and one of my students, a football/theater student became enraged and tried to tackle them both and things started happening incredibly fast. Flash pots, loud bangs, smoke filled the room. Students moved to their designated mark and began making noises dependent on their type of injuries. Once the shooters were gone I called for help and took the remainder of the class, about 15 students outside and looked around for a place to go. Crossing through the hallway was like a war zone with people lying in blood, crying and then becoming increasingly and eerily quiet.

Once again, this was a DRILL. Not reality and it was 1993 well before Columbine.

The hiding place in the townhouses adjacent to the school was successful and our rescue included a ride in the SWAT tank, being asked to lie on the ground as we exited and being searched, roughly. Of course we knew that everyone in our group was a “good guy” but the SWAT members in on the drill, as in a real life shooting incident, did not. With hands over our heads we were marched into the elementary school cafeteria and after some questioning our role playing ended. Little did any of us know how important this specific drill would become as we moved into the epidemic of mass school shootings.

Fast forward to the present and we find that these safety drills are often portrayed as the sign of the disintegration of society as we know it. Images of second graders acting out very realistic active shooter scenes frighten and even disgust us. At our faculty meeting last year before last year’s Parkland shooting the presenter had two elementary school children onstage and asked “How many of you without thought to your own safety would push these children out of the path of a moving train?”

Hands went up. Of course SAFETY is our first priority.

In a week and a half, I will share with my classes the active shooter strategy we will employ if needed. I will show them where we will hide, and routes we can use to escape. We will then brainstorm other ways to make our daily routine as safe as possible. I can’t help but think of an airline stewardess showing the passengers what to do in case of an accident or a ship crew showing cruise passengers the path to the lifeboats. This is just how we start the school year now.

In closing, I’d like to share with you a speech from Melody Herzfeld ,a theatre teacher from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School who saved 65 students by hiding them safely in the theatre:

Hopefully I will never need to use the safe schools training or initiate the crisis plan for action or be required to carry a gun. But for now I want to start the school year, meet my lovely new students and have a great 2018-2019 school year.

Thank you for reading this blog. It is my first and it sits very close to my heart.