School Lockdowns: Protocols for Safety or Triggers for Terror

School Lockdowns:  Protocols for Safety or Triggers for Terror
Jan 17, 2019


With public schools all over our country being prime targets for mass shootings, school personnel, students, and parents have no other recourse except to believe that they are taking their lives into their hands when they go to school—all for the sake of receiving an education!

However, perhaps unwittingly, school officials across the country, albeit with the best of intentions are performing lockdown drills in their schools that act as harmful triggers, causing significant psychological fear and trauma in students both during and after the lockdown drill has taken place. **Arguably, lock down drills can detract from the culture of safety leaders want to create. Safety at the individual student level is a feeling. When a student feels unsafe or scared for their life their body chemistry goes into fight or flight mode – and academic learning is moved to the back burner.** This fact is highlighted in recent Washington Post article about a boy who thought he was going to die during a lockdown drill at his school.

My colleague from Bridg-it and I were giving a SEL workshop for educators this fall in the school library of a middle school and without any real warning, an announcement came over the PA system told everyone in the school to go into lockdown. All 40 of us adults stopped our workshop and were shuttled into an anteroom off the library.

There we were, completely isolated and disconnected from the rest of the school community. We were told to huddle together without making a sound, and “hide” quietly with the lights off! We were not told how long we had to huddle and hide or when we could go back to our normal activities.

The entire experience took 15-20 minutes and was very disturbing, to say the least. The reaction in the faces of most of our workshop attendees was visceral. My own reaction had my head spinning and my heart aching. I knew this was a drill but I also had to push back thoughts of past shootings in Santa Fe, Newtown, Parkland, and even Columbine. I began to wonder what I would do if a shooter did burst in the room and they could easily pick all of us off like fish in a barrel.

My mind went back to times when I have felt extremely helpless, scared, bullied, and harassed. I truly began to experience the type of fear that students in the affected schools in our country MUST HAVE FELT during their nightmares of school terrorism, hiding in the dark, waiting for the worst! I was reminded of the duck and cover drills in the 1950s, the images of students hiding under their desks to prevent them from being injured from flying glass and debris caused by a nuclear bomb going off in their vicinity. These drills were stopped after a couple years because they were scaring many of the students, creating anxiety and causing nightmares.

Unlike fire drills that we have all experienced, in this case, we were all required to hide in the dark. The optics of the lockdown drill were so different from being able to exit the building and see that the students, teachers, principal, staff, and others were safe. This situation compelled turning lights off, huddling, hiding, and waiting like sitting ducks for all!

Such social trauma triggers fear and anxiety, the same receptor in the brain as physical pain and the memory markers that remain with us for the rest of our lives! Further, while the physical pain may end, the psychological pain remains, often dormant until triggered by another lockdown drill, an all too common, but unfortunate part of today’s school culture. I asked myself how students are supposed to learn effectively if they are afraid for their very lives. Are the lockdown drills creating significant student anxiety, making the students feel less safe.

If schools must have lockdown drills, they should proceed cautiously and humanely by:

  • scheduling and pre-announcing them
  • leaving the lights on during the drill
  • keeping the drill brief but sobering
  • having the local authorities come in and re-assure the students that odds of this type of event happening at their school is extremely remote
  • having school authorities and teachers conduct follow up sessions/classes for the students to discuss openly the importance of the lockdown drills to help maintain a safe culture and climate in the school so that everyone feels protected

Our students, teachers, administrators, and parents deserve nothing less!!