Are Lockdown Drills Necessary?

Hi Folks! This reader talks about an issue that I am of two minds about. On the one hand, I truly believe — based on FBI statistics — that schools are extremely safe places and school shootings/terrorist attacks/mayhem are rarer than rare. On the other hand, tornadoes are pretty rare, too, and we had our share of those drills when I was a kid.

Of course, preparing for tornadoes (and fire) had a different social message to it. We were preparing for acts of God, not acts of unspeakable human depravity that just might be committed any day by anyone  — even a fellow student. So mostly, I think that these lockdowns are unnecessary and based on an excessively, nay, outrageously pessimistic view of our times.  And now let’s hear what you think. Here’s the letter that prompted such musings. – L 

Hi Lenore: I’ve just been reading Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature,” and he gives you a generous few paragraphs in his section on violence and children. … Lately I’ve been having a fun time banging my head against a wall at the school I work at, where lockdown drills are mandated twice a year.

Our theme for school improvement this year is “Critical Thinking,” and in the interest of just that, I questioned the usefulness of such drills in a general e-mail in the school’s public folder, using yourself and Pinker, among others, as sources.  I pointed out that there have been only ten incidences of gun violence in Canadian schools in the last hundred years, with most of the casualties resulting from two of them.

Not only did my colleagues not want to listen to my arguments, they actually became angry and resisted the whole process of public debate!  One colleague actually took issue with the statistics, suggesting that we could extrapolate a “trend” from the microscopically rare incidents I had enumerated, and which therefore supported the kind of drastic action our board seems to think makes sense.  I’m still kind of shocked that there should be so little regard for either fact or debate amongst educators.

I’m sure you must feel the same frustration I do.  School violence is actually WAY down.  Here’s an interesting excerpt from a Q&A session with Pinker on the Freakonomics website, which is salient:

Q: Other than writing best-selling books what can people do to help society at large resist the urge to think things are worse and worse and the world is less and less safe when this is manifestly not the case? –Joshua Northey

A: A small portion of the population is willing to be reasoned with, but when I tell my reasonably intelligent sister that “children are probably safer today than at any time in human history,” she scoffs at me as if I am telling her that cigarettes have nothing to do with lung cancer. She is so dismissive she won’t even read the few things I have given her about it, and her attitude is not uncommon.

One necessity is greater statistical literacy among the population and especially among journalists. People need to think in terms of proportions rather than salient examples, to appreciate orders of magnitudes (ten thousand deaths versus ten million deaths), to distinguish random blips from systematic trends, and to be aware of—and thereby discount—their own cognitive biases. When Harvard revamped its undergraduate curriculum a few years ago, I lobbied (unsuccessfully) for a statistical and analytic thinking requirement.

Also, journalists have to rethink their policy of featuring only gory events and terrifying threats. Tensions that fizzle out (e.g, remember how a decade ago India and Pakistan were allegedly on the verge of nuclear war?), wars that sputter to a halt, “war-torn” countries that are no longer torn by war, and other happy events and non-events should be just as newsworthy as things that go bang.

I have been doing as Pinker tried to do, and arguing for a greater emphasis in on analytical thinking in the curriculum, as I’m more and more convinced that universal cognitive biases such as the Availability Heuristic and the Confirmation Bias, among others, ought to be taught formally, so people are at least aware of them.  As Northrop Frye told us, thinking is a skill, not an innate ability (but my students react angrily to that assertion as well!) — A High School Teacher to the North

Hey Kids! School Needs Volunteers to Play Massacre Victims

Folks — Sometimes I’m just stunned by what our culture chooses to focus on. See below. And remember, as you read this, that one of the places children are very SAFEST is at school. — L
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I live in NJ where the current governor has been slashing the education budget like the chainsaw massacre killer. So, what is my district spending money on these days?  That’s right, an active shooter drill. Because, you know, Columbines happen all the time.
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This is a suburb that is chock full of supermoms and security nuts.  But the principal is asking for volunteers to act out this remote scenario and doesn’t appear to see the irony that  “rubber ammunition” will be used.  It’s the most bizarre email I’ve gotten this year and I thought the last one forbidding high school students from using Super Soakers to play Assassins was stupid.  So, let me get this straight: It is NOT okay for 16-year-olds to douse unsuspecting students with Super Soakers when they are off of school property because the water gun looks “too realistic” and the cops can’t tell the difference between it and a Glock. But it is PERFECTLY okay to ask for student volunteers to play the victims of a drill where rubber bullets and realistic sights and sounds of a mass murder in progress will be used.
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I’m the one with the problem, right? I’ll bet some administrative assistant’s job was cut to help pay for this nonsense. – A Mystified Jersey Mom
THE EMAIL WE GOT:
Subject: Active Shooter Drill at High School on 6/24. Student volunteers requested. See website or email for details.
General – Email Only
Complete Message: On Friday, June 24, 2011, our high school will be conducting an Active Shooter Drill at the school in conjunction with the Police Department, the Office of Emergency Management, the Rescue Squad, and the district Community Emergency Response Team members. The purpose of this drill is to provide a simulated training activity to help emergency responders prepare for an actual emergency in any school setting..To make this a productive and authentic training activity, student volunteers are needed.The drill will run from approximately 8:30 AM to 12:30 PM. Because this will be a training exercise for the police, rubber ammunition will be used, and the sights and sounds will be very authentic and potentially upsetting. Student volunteers will not be utilized in any way that may cause injury and will mostly serve as students in a typical classroom setting under lockdown conditions or as students with simulated injuries to which the EMS and CERT members can respond.Current high school students, including graduating seniors, are welcome to attend. Students who are involved in this drill will earn certificates for four hours of community service. A permission slip is required for participation in this activity, and submission of the permission slip is how students will officially be signed up. Permission slips are available on the website and in the office, as well as in the email attached to this Instant Alert. Completed permission slips must be submitted by Friday, June 17, in the first floor office.Thank you for your willingness to help our schools and emergency responders train effectively to keep everyone safe.