That Way Madness Lies

Honesty and optimism, with a side of spirited indignation

The Chicago Public Schools, like many districts across the nation, have instituted district-wide monthly lockdown drills in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting last December.  Parents are supportive, even demanding such “preparation.”  In a  meeting of  about a dozen involved adults last night, I was the lone fish swimming against the current of “security.”  Sorry folks, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  And the irrational and dangerous things that such fear makes us do.  I’d like to break down every   argument that I hear when I ask a  critical question about the lockdown culture.  I hear the same handful of claims, and I’m pretty sure that they are the common claims made by most people from the top down who have accepted “conventional wisdom” without questioning whether any actual wisdom is involved at all. 

Let’s begin with the claim that it’s no big deal, since we do fire drills and tornado drills,   and the kids handle that just fine.  Okay, let’s break that down into manageable parts.  Yes, fire drills and tornado drills are a great idea.  They have something in common: they are disasters and they have an action that is proven to make a difference should you find yourself in one.  If there is a fire, it is ALWAYS the best idea to leave the building that is on fire.  If there is a tornado, it is ALWAYS a good idea to seek shelter inside, down low and away from glass.  But what is a lockdown drill?  Well, the name gives it away: the drill is not named for a danger, it is named for a style of response.  Let’s be honest with ourselves.  We are doing “Crazed Maniac With A Gun Drills.”  Lockdowns are a tool borrowed from prison.  They can be a useful coping strategy for a disaster, but only in certain types of disasters that have followed certain types of patterns, and they are only one tool in the toolbox.  A lockdown is a last resort when every other preventative measure has failed.  They are also useful in keeping a casualty count down once a massacre or riot has already begun.  The primary feeder schools in the school to prison pipeline are all too familiar with the lockdown drill.  All in all, a lockdown is not the same as a fire or natural disaster.  Not by any rational metric.

So what about the idea that they will become “no big deal” to the kids.  Well, that is true.  Human children have an amazing capacity to normalize and internalize all kinds of things.  That doesn’t mean that something normalized is inherently something good.  Actually, it is quite the contrary: internalizing and normalizing fear and fight-or-flight responses is a primary cause of dysfunction, unhealthy development and mental illnesses like PTSD and anxiety disorders.  Not only that, but the kids internalize the unintentional messages (whether they are subconscious and true or completely false is irrelevant; what matters is what the kids feel, not what we intend).  They learn that the world is a scary place, that we should give in to fears, that we are powerless, that they should not trust their own instincts, that we do not trust them.  That all of the locks might be as much to keep them locked in as to keep others locked out.  It can be a very dehumanizing and disenfranchising experience, to say the least.  And an interesting side note: these ensuing feelings tend to be the same descriptors used when painting a picture of perpetrators of mass murders and other unspeakable crimes after the fact.  In all of this talk about mitigating risk, we should make sure that we lay all of the risk cards on the table.  How secure are we if our safety measures cause more problems than they solve?

The kids also internalize something perhaps even more dangerous: that the lockdown drills will make them safer, and that is the most dangerous myth that we have to challenge.  These drills *might* help keep a body count down if a situation like the one in Connecticut happens, and they might help protect students if something dangerous is happening outside of the school while the kids are all inside of the school (that is actually their original purpose, and it is a good one, but it never was deemed necessary to have monthly drills in every school involving the children for that purpose).  The sad fact is, the chances of a school shooting playing out that way again is just not likely, especially since it didn’t even fit the mold of previous school shootings (most of which were carried out by a student from the school itself).  We are attempting to create a one-size-fits-all reaction based to something that is basically insane, irrational and incomprehensible.  Think about it: we are teaching kids that a glass and wooden door will keep them safe from an automatic weapon.  That walls protect them.  That standing in a corner behind a curtain will make a homicidal maniac think that the school just *poof* got all empty. 

Now I understand the idea of buying time saving lives (either in making the supposed shooters have to spend more time, I don’t know, walking around? or giving the cops time to respond), but that isn’t what we are telling kids.  We are giving them a false sense of empowerment that relies as much on magical thinking as rational planning.  My sons’ school has kids as young as seven learning to stand on a toilet seat with no lid to hide in a bathroom stall from madmen with guns.  Never mind that fact that children get shot in their beds in this city by bullets that travel through walls (as bullets are apt to do).  I have a hard time believing that I am the only person in this whole country that is questioning the wisdom of teaching kids that if confronted with a gun, they will be okay behind wood (especially since kids are smart enough at a certain age to know what bullshit it is).  The most likely scenario for kids to encounter a gun in this country is in a home with family or friends.  I’d hate to think that the conditioned response to such a situation might be, “oh, I’ll be okay.  There’s a whole bunch of doors in this house.” 

Furthermore, if we do decide that we want to teach kids how to survive in what is essentially a war zone, a whole lot of ethical issues will rise to the surface.  Face it: the reason we are telling them to hide is NOT because it is the best response in every situation, but because it is the easiest thing to teach them.  Hiding, while passive and in many cases useless, is safe to talk about.  All of that civility goes out the window when bullets fly.  We have to have international courts to make rules for civilians in war zones.  Why?  Because protecting oneself in war zones is complicated.  Too complicated ethically for most adults to handle, much less schoolchildren.  But one you open the can of worms, and decide to entertain the Whatifs, then someday, some kid somewhere (because come on, they watch movies, you know?) will ask about human shields.  Or fighting back.  Or martyrdom.  Or arming the students. Or the infinite scenarios that are bound to come to at least some of the kids’ minds.  Do we really think that the average adult in a school is equipped to handle that conversation?  And to those who would say, “well, we can just stop the conversation then,” well, how is that fair?  We’ve told the kids that something awful could happen and that they need to practice and prepare for it.  It kind of tips our hand when we change the subject just when they finally caught us in our dishonesty, that we don’t mean any of this; it is all for show.

That brings us to the next myth: that in order to be a successful response, the kids have to participate in regular lockdown drills.  Here’s the thing: we could be approaching this whole thing from a different direction.  When I worked in retail, we did similar drills when the store was closed.  The staff received training, and we role played many scenarios, from robberies to missing children.  We knew the protocol, and we knew that we had to use our brains and instincts to adapt.  We never did drills with the customers in the store.  First of all, no adult in their right mind would subject him or herself to such a thing.  It would be a waste of valuable time, an inconvenience, unnecessary stress, in imposition, and an overreaction.  Plus, they trust that the store has trained staff who will guide and protect them, should the need ever arise.  They count on preventative measures like security to protect them.  Why then, do we put our children in a position that we would never accept for ourselves? 

On the retail side of things, we recognized something else: that a drill could only help us practice protocol, but everything else in the equation would be a variable.  The behavior of a criminal doesn’t follow a standard operating procedure guidebook.  Neither do the customers.  Drilling one response over and over again does not take into account the reality of the situation: that in the grand scheme of things, there are infinitely more possibilities than we can ever even imagine.  We must ask ourselves the hard questions.  Questions like, “if a maniac brings an arsenal and shoots down the door to my child’s school, do I want my kid and his teacher to think that the best and only way to deal with the situation is to wait like a sitting duck hidden behind nothing but a wood and glass door when every instinct in their body is screaming “run, run, jump out the goddamn window!” 

Kids should never have to think about all of the possibilities, for the same reason that  customers would stop coming to a store that made them do drills for undrillable things.  People cannot give in to their fears without becoming irrational themselves.  It just isn’t possible.  We need to leave the planning and practicing and memorization of procedure to those staffing the store, so to speak.  This is especially the case when we are talking about the sort of drills that involve actors (like undercover cops) and sound effects (like shooting blanks or firecrackers).  Do we set off smoke bombs in fire drills or have Hollywood wind machines in tornado drills?  Of course not.  That would be irrational.  Beyond a quickie lockdown once or twice a year (one that does not involve the risk of kids falling into toilets or other potentially more dangerous hiding places-the mere suggestion that one should find a safe place to hide should be enough if we bother teaching critical thought to children) should suffice.  The adults can game plan the details.  In a fire drill, kids just walk outside; we don’t practice wrapping a “burned” kid in wet blankets, and we don’t make kids jump out windows.  A general emergency training in which kids practice shutting up to listen to instructions would be just as effective—and would prepare kids for the millions of more likely scenarios that they will face.

The final myth really demonstrates the crux of the irrationality of lockdown drills. I, for one, have been tired of hearing that “you can’t have too much security” since September 12, 2001.  When it comes down to it, we don’t drill for every terrifying possibility that exists in the world, and you don’t ever prevent the next catastrophe by  tailoring your response to the minute details of the previous one.  Is there anyone who still thinks the world is safer because everyone takes off their shoes in airports and leaves their mouthwash at home?  Terrorists are going to try to blow stuff up; they’ll just blow up anything other than airplanes, using, I don’t know, anything other than shoes. Since school shooters are statistically more likely to have a connection to the school (usually as a student), now they will be well prepared to shoot through doors.  So then we put in bulletproof doors, so then they get through the door with a smile before shooting.  It never ends.  We have to find a rational place to draw the line.

Kids are more likely to encounter many things other than spree killers.  Do we drill them to climb trees when they see a rabid dog in the park at recess?  Do we drill them for spider bites or carbon monoxide leaks or shelves falling on them?  We finally came to terms with the fact that hiding under a desk won’t protect us from an atomic bomb.  Why are we trying to go backwards?

We revert when the world gets too hard.  When we feel out of control.  We all want to protect our kids but we can’t.  We see the big, scary stories on the news, and we grieve and we think, “what if?”  We all feel helpless, and we want so badly to make it all better for our children who have to live in this world because it is the world we have made for them.  And we feel guilt and shame at the state of the world.  We other the perpetrators and we build walls between us and them.  We try to simplify things that are so complex that we cannot handle the magnitude.

It is from this desire to oversimplify that conspiracy theorists gain their power.  Rational people do not drill their children to drop to the ground in their own yards by firing blanks to simulate street violence, though the death of innocent schoolchildren on the streets is a common occurrence in urban America.  We don’t drill our kids to defend against home invasion with bulletproof vests and guns of their own.  This is the realm of radical conspiracy theorists and doomsday preppers that prepare for the impending zombie apocalypse.  We mock them, and rightly so.  For the most part, we are glad that they live far away on compounds and off the grid.  Why on earth are we institutionalizing plans from their playbook?

Would we not, then, be better served to teach general emergency preparedness?  We could be focusing on useful, adaptable skills like how to call 911, how to perform first aid, basic self defense, where to go if you are being abused (which is the most likely form of violence for children to face-victimization by their own family), how to be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts, to role-play situations with peers to help practice the strength needed to stand up to and remain calm in the face of pressure or fear.  This isn’t reinventing the wheel; there are many organizations desperate to share this message with our kids, and to help parents gain the confidence to have these conversations with their own children.  That is empowering for everyone involved, and it is the ounce of prevention (along with well-trained security guards and adult staff) so desperately needed.  When uninformed parents demand dangerous practices like drills with unhealthy unintended consequences, we must tell them “NO,” just as we do when they demand to park in the No Parking Emergency Zone or when they demand to enter the school without showing ID.

It is in oversimplification that we err.  Complex problems always require complex solutions.  In building walls, we only build an illusion of empowerment and a false sense of security.  It is much harder to empower children to think critically and rationally.  It is harder for us to tell our children the truth: that the world is indeed a scary place, but it is a complex and multi-faceted place.  Bad things abound, but it is full of beauty and wonder, too.  That we must learn to tear down the walls in order to spread the beauty and goodness.  That if we choose to live in fear, it will own us.  We are slaves to our insecurities.  We must walk tall into an uncertain future, because it is the strong and the fearless who are truly empowered.  It is the fearless who will create for their own children, our grandchildren, the very world that they deserve.  The one we have failed to create.  We must resolve never to burden our children with our fears.  Should we tie our failures to them, they will surely drown.

1 year ago