Safe Classrooms in the Age of Intruder Drills

180 days a year, I go to school and bust my ass to ensure that my students feel safe inside the four walls of my classroom. I can only do so much on duty in the gym or in the hall during passing period. But in my room, our room, we literally create a family over a span of about 140 hours of time spent together. On occasion, a principal or a college student will wander in, but the vast majority of that 140 hours consists of just me and my students. There is so much autonomy built into this space. We learn together, we grow together, and we drill together.

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We occasionally leave the classroom together to jam into a locker room for tornado drills or gather outside on the tennis courts for fire drills. But several times every school year, I am expected to direct multiple students to crawl under my desk. “Everyone in this corner. Away from the small window in the door. Low to the floor. Quiet please. We don’t want ‘you know who’ to come in here and yell at us.” Wait for it… Wait for it… Heavy footsteps in the hallway, then, “Boom! Boom! Boom!” Someone in the hallway pounds their fists against the classroom door. Nobody laughs. Nobody moves. The footsteps move on. We patiently wait several more minutes. Then the intercom, “This concludes our intruder drill. Please continue with class as normal.”

“Everyone in this corner. Away from the small window in the door. Low to the floor. Quiet please. We don’t want ‘you know who’ to come in here and yell at us.”

Class as normal? Armed police just impersonated an active shooter trying to gain access to my classroom! How could class possibly be normal after this traumatic event? And yet somehow it is. Students and teachers alike have been conditioned not to wince at this simulation. The National Rifle Association has manufactured a world where schools must ask “when” and not “if.” No one says or even thinks the words, “It could never happen here.” Because we all know it could.

But what kind of intruder would actually knock? Teachers are not instructed on what to do beyond the hiding and the banging door. The shots, the evacuation at gunpoint, and the unarmed acts of resistance will always go unscripted and unrehearsed. No teacher can be absolutely certain how they would respond to an armed person forcibly entering their classroom unless they have actually been in that situation. The intruder drill is a minimally effective scare tactic, a necessary evil at best.

Good teachers are adept at dealing with frequent class disruptions. An active shooter situation is the ultimate class disruption. From the teacher’s perspective, it is a sudden and complete loss of control. It is a moment when concepts like classroom management, conflict resolution, and even de-escalation are completely irrelevant. Separate from the imminent danger, such a dramatic shift in roles can be very disorienting. Social Justice minded teachers spend a lot of time protecting students from themselves, from other students in the classroom, and from them as the teacher. My implicit biases as a teacher present a very tangible danger to my students, but my microaggressions elicit an entirely different response than does the presence of a semi-automatic rifle.

An active shooter situation is the ultimate class disruption.

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For good reason, first year teachers are told of the importance of creating classroom climate during the first two weeks of school. This is the time, above all else, for teachers to send the clear message to students, “You are safe in this classroom.” Keeping that promise is almost always an issue of classroom management, inclusive practices, and culturally responsive pedagogy. But making that promise to students in 2018 necessarily evokes gun violence as well. Can a teacher unequivocally promise to protect all students in a potential active shooter situation? No, of course not. What teachers can do is to create a classroom culture where the presence of outsiders; student observers, other teachers, principals, and even parents, is marked by a small healthy dose of uneasiness and maybe even a hint of suspicion. Even a principal using a key to enter a locked classroom unannounced, though it is their right, should feel like a minor intrusion. The message; “You are our guest. We have a good thing going here. Please don’t mess it up with your presence.”

If I can create that sense of family and security in my classroom, then as a class, we might be 1% more prepared for unwanted classroom “guests” like the power wielding SRO (School Resource Officer), the Betsy DeVos inspired ICE raid (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), or heaven forbid the active shooter.

One thought on “Safe Classrooms in the Age of Intruder Drills

  1. I am sure you have passion for the safety of our school children, as do a vast majority of our population. However, when you make jabs at the NRA you relegate your article to the trash can for many in our country. You would get a lot more attention to your writing if you refrain from throwing stones at groups which many people believe in. Leave your opinions in your drawer. Pushing your opinions on your readers is why Donald Trump was elected. I’m sure you wish you could change that. Of course, this is just, my opinion.

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