SCHOOL TALK: The ‘New Reality’ in Our Schools

Dec. 30, 2013

We all grew up with fire drills and understand what they involve—No talking! Walk quickly! Don’t run! No giggling! Some of us even remember ducking under our desks during air raid drills. I’m sure my elementary school staff took the safety of the children seriously, but what I remember is that fire drills provided a welcome break from sitting in rows, filling in answers in work­­­books, and listening to the radiators hiss.

Today, when we talk to children about the different kinds of safety drills that are regularly re­hearsed in city schools, the message is clear—the paramount mission of any school is to keep children safe. While that sounds like a given, the development of school safety plans has become much more complex since 9/11 and Columbine. We now know that the unimaginable can happen.

And, of course, not only Downtown. Schools all over the country are facing the new reality—if it can happen in Sandy Hook, it can probably happen in any town and in any school. No one feels immune anymore.

We are all familiar with fire drills, but what about a hard lockdown? That is what happens if there is a potential threat in the building, such as an intruder.

In a hard lockdown, teachers make sure that all their children are accounted for. Before locking the classroom door, they quickly scan the hallways for students from other classes and pull them inside. They make sure that the windows facing the hallways are covered with a curtain or paper. They gather the children in whatever space is out of range of the classroom door. In some rooms, the children are in the coat closets; in others, they are crouched behind bookshelves. In our Pre-K, eighteen tiny bodies crowd into the classroom bathroom.

All of this happens in silence. Even the slightest sound could potentially alert an intruder to the presence of someone in the room. Of course, the intruder would probably already know that on a school day there are children in the rooms. But we have to believe that we have some control over the situation, even though deep down, we know we don’t.

After Sandy Hook, some teachers in our school got together and decided that they were going to keep their classrooms locked at all times. It was their stand against being a sitting duck. When an administrator realized what they were doing, she explained that locking the doors was also dangerous: what if something happened in the classroom and no one could get into the room to help?

At monthly school safety meetings, we spend time on “what ifs.” What if the intruder is on the south side of the building—should the teachers in classrooms on the north side try and silently move their classes out of the building? What if there are children in the lunchroom?

Where should they go to hide?

Besides the school safety team, which consists of administrators, parent coordinators, custodians, and school safety agents, every New York City school must now have a Building Response Team, an “emergency information and action management team,” activated by the principal in the event of an emergency to take control of the scene before the first responders arrive.

This past fall, the staff at a Brooklyn school faced a scenario that I had never contemplated. Gunshots were heard outside the building, and a man lay dying on the street. The principal announced a hard lockdown. Teachers locked doors and did their best to keep the kids quiet.

Eventually, the gunman made his getaway, and the police arrived. Some of the younger children were hardly aware of what had happened, but the sixth graders in the building who heard the gunshots knew.

The story was reported in the New York Times, which quoted their teacher: “We just kept repeating, ‘You’re safe here, you’re secure.’”

Everyone was safe that day, but what if? What if the gunman had sought refuge in the school building, shooting his way through the hastily locked door? What if a middle school student had been out to lunch and couldn’t get back in the building because it was locked for the safety of the kids inside?

Forgive me. What way is this to ring in the New Year? Just this—school staffs are spending time, thought, and effort to make sure that no matter what happens, they are prepared.

Connie Schraft is P.S. 89’s parent co­ordinator. For questions and comments, write to her at connie­