A UGA professor says he was one of those kids in the grainy black-and-white “duck and cover” films, hiding under his school desk to secure his safety from an atomic bomb blast.
Photo: Dan Grossi/AP
Photo: Dan Grossi/AP

Opinion: Whether nuclear attacks or active shooters, climate of fear affects kids

Here is a thoughtful, albeit disconcerting, reflection by University of Georgia education professor and frequent Get Schooled contributor Peter Smagorinsky on the impact of lockdowns and active shooter drills in our schools.

By Peter Smagorinsky

I was a schoolboy outside Washington, DC, in the 1950s and 1960s. Every day, at noon, an air raid siren test would shriek across the landscape, testing our readiness to take cover from a nuclear attack by the Russians. I was one of those kids in the grainy black-and-white “duck and cover” films, hiding under my school desk to secure my safety from an atomic bomb blast. Every day at noon, I felt terrified that I’d be blown to pieces. 

My experiences as a boy sound similar to how a teacher or student feels today when going to school. Instead of the Russians and their nukes, the feelings of threat now come from an American armed with weapons of mass murder. 

Mass shootings have changed fundamental aspects of schooling, from the availability of corporate active shooter training to the rules on backpacks and hoodies. The proliferation of sudden, deadly, mass attacks on schools has had an onerous effect on not only school structure, but more pervasively, school climate.

“Mass shootings” are generally defined as events in which a minimum of 3-5 persons (excluding the shooter) are shot in a single incident in a public place at roughly the same time, in an act not committed as part of organized criminal or gang activity, and not associated with political, religious, or nationalist terrorism.

Wikipedia’s mass shootings page, which I assume to represent reasonably well the distribution of shootings across sites, includes events that have their own Wikipedia listing. A separate database is available for school shootings of all kinds, mass or minimal. In 2017, there were  94 total school-based incidents involving gunfire. 

What I found were 37 U.S. mass shootings for 2018 and 2019. My first observation in reflecting on this list is that there are a lot of mass shootings in the U.S. They are well-distributed geographically and across many types of sites. 

Schools account for only 14% of the massacres. I would wager that they get far more than 14% of media and political attention as places subject to such crises.

There are nearly 133,000 K-12 schools in the U.S. One out of every 26,600 schools has been the site of a mass shooting in the last two years. The rest of the schools fear that one is coming soon, and are taking precautions to respond when the shooter bursts through the school doors and opens fire.

I’ve written previously about the fears that teachers have of going to work, and the changes in school architecture designed to minimize a shooter’s opportunities. I take their fears and precautions seriously. The relationships that people have with their school have been shaped by the specter of a heavily-armed shooter entering their building and killing as many people as possible.

Schools are taking precautions both to prevent shootings, and to minimize death and injury should one occur. The National Rifle Association and President Trump hope to arm teachers with guns to discourage shooters and kill them if they show up. Some schools have begun to allow trained staffers to bear arms. 

Some lines of defense sound like satire. Teachers at schools and universities have been provided with hockey pucksrocks, and mini baseball bats to use on a shooter. One administrator in Pennsylvania has said, “If an armed intruder attempts to gain entrance into any of our classrooms, they will face a classroom full of students armed with rocks, and they will be stoned” before they can fire off 45-180 rounds per minute with an assault rifle (estimates vary greatly on shooting capacity). 

School security is now a $2.7 billion industry. This security emphasis has made schools unnerving places to be. The fear of a deadly attack has become a form of terror affecting how schools are constructed and conducted.

I recently talked with a North Georgia middle school teacher in a rural part of the state. The school has never had gun violence, but has taken preparations should an active shooter enter the building. The process for responding was imposed from the top down, as is everything else at the school. 

The procedures are deliberately vague so that the shooters themselves can’t learn of the defense strategies, in turn creating uncertainty and confusion in classrooms. Teachers are provided with print materials explaining what to do. These plans must be hidden away to prevent discovery, yet handy enough to be available during a crisis. 

The school has a few faculty trained in treating trauma injuries, and each wing of the school has a bleeding-control kit in the event of a shooting. The language employed for these occasions is that of imminent threat, similar to the language codes that emerged in the wake of the 9-11 attacks.

The school year began with a staff meeting to review protocols for soft and hard lockdowns for any crisis, with peripheral discussions about the specific threat of active shooters. In a soft lockdown, everyone must retreat to a classroom and the door must be locked. 

The teacher I spoke with was in the bathroom during one of the drills and was locked out of her classroom, because all classroom doors were immediately shut and locked, as specified by the rules, until the drill ended.

During soft or hard lockdowns, classrooms remain locked until an announcement concludes the event. No one knows whether they are going through a drill, or whether there’s a real threat. 

In a drill in a school in California, the administration had a janitor simulate an attack without the knowledge of teachers or students. The administration’s plan was to have everyone believe they were experiencing a real attack, producing widespread hysteria and fear, all amplified through the secrecy of the process.

Dr. Peter Smagorinsky

A hard lockdown follows much more strict procedures. In addition to the requirement of a locked door, the lights must be turned off, and everyone must crouch and crowd into a corner of the classroom that is not exposed to a window. No one may talk and thus betray their presence.

The assumption is that all students will behave with nobility and care for their classmates’ safety. This belief has not been supported by their discussions of drill procedures, when the most assertive students said they’d claim the most secure spots as everyone fights to save their own lives. 

The designed vagueness leads to uncertainty and fear for the teachers and students who don’t even know why they are in a lockdown. There is no clear definition of what constitutes a threat or how to communicate during one. The inability to access the school intercom system during the lockdown to provide updates adds ambiguity as well. All anyone in a classroom knows is that someone has announced a lockdown, and they must act as if they and their classmates might die if they don’t follow the rules.

The rural middle school I’m describing began the year with imminent threat procedures, drills, policy briefings, and other preventative measures that occupied instructional time. This time was never recovered, even as the teachers and students remained accountable for what might have been taught and learned. 

And then: nothing. The academic curriculum was launched and the procedural training got lost in the myriad other complications that govern life in school. What remained in the air was the tremendous feeling of insecurity produced by the way in which the school year began. 

When I was a boy, those daily air raid sirens made me constantly fear that I would die from bombs launched from Moscow. That fear lasted well beyond the drill itself, and permeated our lives as Cold War-era kids. If terrorism is about creating both disaster and the fear of more bedlam, then the threat of attack worked as well as Khrushchev could have imagined.

My goal is not to belittle efforts to make schools secure environments. Feeling secure is essential for kids to buy into schoolwork, and schools can be threatening enough for young people without the thought of being killed. 

In much of my writing in this space, I’ve addressed the importance of making schools places where students and teachers feel emotionally safe and supported. That’s hard to achieve when you live in fear of dying at the hands of angry, hopeless, vengeful people prepared to take their own lives along with yours and your classmates’. 

Schools have historically been viewed as sanctuaries, even as they have always been the site of bullyingpredatory adultsdecrepit conditions, and other threats to individual and group security. They have become just as fragile as any other public place, in part through the ways in which schools prepare to address a mass shooter, and the fear that it engenders. 

Is there a better way? I wish I knew. I do hope that this reflection helps others understand the climate of fear governing the modern-day school. Most attention to school effectiveness follows from technocratic initiatives measured by data, minimizing the emotional response that people have to the modern school environment. 

But what people experience, and how they experience it, is fundamentally emotional and carries forward much more powerfully than a day’s data points. I encourage all educational stakeholders to understand this new climate of school fear and how it affects the lives of those who make up our school communities. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.