A few years ago, I was teaching a summer class when we did a lock down safety drill. I was forewarned that the lock down would occur and instructed to turn off lights, lock the door, pull down shades, and have students put away all electronics when the signal was given. Our compliance would be checked when someone came by and touched our door handle. At the beginning of the class, I told my students what would happen. One of my older students who also happened to be a veteran seemed a bit distracted during our first workshops. Most days, he was talkative. He was older and spoke with authority about things he felt he understood. Other students looked up to him. This day he sat near the door (he usually liked the back wall), and when the drill warning occurred and lights were turned off, he watched the door intently and waved me over to get my attention when he noticed the door handle move a bit.
Soon the drill was over and we were given the signal that lights could be turned on and doors could be opened. The rest of my students returned to their usual activities and levels of engagement, but this young man was basically out for the day. He was polite, but didn’t write much for the prompts and asked for a skip when we took turns sharing. I remember that he talked with me a bit after class about how the drill put him on alert and brought back some feelings from his war experiences, but he didn’t go into detail. I remember that over that week he returned to his usual ways of interacting during workshops and he did very well in the class in the end.
I felt I had witnessed someone shutting down from learning new things (for a time) to deal with trauma. He had been trained to be ready to act in violent situations, and the drill put him on the alert to be ready to react to impending violence. I appreciated that he felt responsibility for us all. But writing workshops are supposed to be safe spaces for people to stretch and try new things and share. When you are under attack, you have to shut down those impulses to reach out and be open. You must protect yourself, your people, your area, and hold everything else at bay. I get the sense that you can’t turn that protective stance off like a switch once it’s been activated. It made me sad that my student had to put his own learning offline in order to participate in an exercise that has not been proven to increase safety.
Over the last few years it seems that many districts have escalated the scale and intensity of active shooter drills on college campuses and K-12 schools. Some drills even include realistic enactments. Given the increasing numbers of mass shootings in our country, it might seem to make sense to increase such “safety training.” In fact, as some of you may know, NMC will be conducting a smaller scale enactment style active shooter drill soon on our campus. Management and leadership groups will be participating and blanks will be fired from a gun as part of the enactment.
I’ll be honest, I’m resentful of this exercise. I think the trauma I might experience will be minimal, and the college has given people the ability to opt out of the live enactment component of the drill and just do other parts of the training. However, in the end, if someone comes into one of our classes as the Umpqua Community College shooter did in 2015, luck is likely the only thing that will save specific teachers, students, or staff members. Perhaps a veteran or an officer or other trained first responder will intervene. But even first responders are likely to get hurt in mass shooting situations.
This semester my writing classes just finished a unit on heroes and villains in our culture, and we talked about the teacher in the Parkland shooting and parents in the El Paso shooting as current versions of American heroes. They sacrificed themselves to save the children in their care, so it’s understandable that news media would depict them as heroes. One problem with this idea of heroism though is that those children need teachers and parents alive. To learn and to grow we need nurturing safe spaces and caring people in our lives. Teachers and parents cannot do their jobs if they are also having to somehow train themselves to protect others from extreme violence. Our expectations for teachers and schools are getting skewed. Realistically active shooter drills only serve to acclimate us all to a climate of potential violence. I know some people live in such a climate all of the time, but I had hoped that our school would be a different type of place, a place where it feels safe to open up to new ideas and experiences.