Students endure lockdown drills; shooter preparation can be stressful
ADDISON COUNTY — On March 28 Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School conducted a lockdown drill — “locks, lights and out of sight.”
Tenth-grader Mae Peterson knew it was a drill, she said.
“My teacher asked us, ‘Which one is this? Is this the one where you go in the corner?’ He didn’t know. Someone said it was, so we turned the lights off and huddled in the corner. As I sat in the dark, hearing others whisper and giggle, I began to think. I began to wait for the gunshots. A part of me knew they wouldn’t come, but a part of me screamed, ‘But what if they do?’”
When the drill ended, Peterson said, she had a hard time laughing with those classmates who wished the drill had been longer, so they could nap. It wasn’t until after class, as she was walking down the hall with a friend, that she realized the extent of the fear she’d felt.
“I then went and took a math test,” she said.
Mount Abe eleventh-grader Evan Laurent was afraid to sit with his back to the door, he said.
“I turned my phone brightness all the way down and became super aware of all my classmates doing the same. My heart was beating pretty fast and I was pretty stressed.”
Fellow junior Chessley Jackman found herself in a double room near the library when the drill began. The room had four doorways.
“We quickly realized we needed to locate ourselves in a different room. We filed through the library into the next nearest room and that movement alone seemed to put us in a vulnerable position.”
After they locked that room’s three doors, Jackman sat as far away from them as she could. It was the first time she’d ever thought “strategically” in that situation, she said.
School safety has become a hot topic in Vermont since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the arrest in Vermont, a day later, of a Poultney man accused of planning a school shooting at Fair Haven Union High School. Schools around the county, including Middlebury Union middle and high schools and Vergennes Union High School, as well as elementary schools, carry out shooter drills.
In a memo released the week after the Fair Haven arrest, Gov. Phil Scott announced that he was directing state agencies, along with the state police, to conduct security assessments of every school in Vermont.
A month later, Vermont Public Radio host Jane Lindholm wanted to know how that was going. For an episode titled “Making Sure Schools Are Safe,” she invited Emily Harris of the Vermont School Crisis Planning Team and Vermont State Police Lt. Matt Amadon for a discussion. Toward the end of that March 20 episode she asked her guests if they ever talked directly to students about school safety drills.
No, they acknowledged, they did not.
Nor does Gov. Scott’s school security memo suggest they do so.
His memo addresses “adverse childhood experiences” and ways to “measurably reduce” them, but it doesn’t mention ways to reduce the stress kids feel during regularly scheduled active shooter drills in the state’s schools.
A comprehensive school security assessment might reasonably be expected to identify:
• Building damage: “Our classroom door wouldn’t lock,” reported Mount Abe senior Casey Ober, “so my teacher shoved a table in front of it.”
• Protocols that need refinement: “We didn’t know it was only a drill,” said Mount Abe art teacher Bruce Babbitt. In the dark “we quietly talked about what it would be like if this wasn’t only a drill. Despite our efforts at securing ourselves, we were all feeling vulnerable and a bit helpless.”
• Policies that need updating: “There really aren’t clear requirements that come down from the state in terms of how we respond in emergency situations,” said ANeSU Superintendent Patrick Reen. “There are lots of resources and advice but not clear mandates.”
And there’s every reason to believe such issues, once identified, would be fixed.
Less clear, however, is how anyone intends to assess the effects on students of the security measures that are meant to protect them.
TALKING WITH CHILDREN
Much has been made of the need to discuss mass shootings and other traumatic events with children. After Parkland and Fair Haven, the Vermont School Safety Center posted to its website a document called “Talking to Children About the Shooting,” which some Addison County schools mailed home to the families of their students. Prepared by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), the nine-point memo addresses, among other things, typical reactions to mass shootings:
“In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, (children) may have more problems paying attention and concentrating,” it reads. “It’s common for young people to feel anxious about what has happened, what may happen in the future, and how it will impact their lives.”
The document does not mention talking to students about lockdown drills.
It also does not specify which “shooting.” When asked if the memo was referring to Parkland, a spokesperson for the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at Duke University said, “Sadly, we’ve stopped specifying which shooting we’re referring to, because it happens too often.” The document has been on their website since 2014, she added, though it’s “completely up to date.” At the time of the interview the NCTSN had just completed a mailing to California in the wake of a deadly shooting at the Veterans Home in Yountville, she said.
Some Addison County students seem to take the lockdown drills in stride.
For Monkton Central School siblings Sam, Molly and Ben Mangini the drills have been a fact of life since day one.
“I’ve been in a lot of them, so I know it’s just a drill,” said sixth-grader Sam.
Molly, in fourth grade, said, “I actually kind of like it because it’s quiet.”
Their brother, Ben, a first-grader, said, “I don’t really think about anything.”
Their schoolmate, fifth-grader Nola Roberts, described a recent drill at the school.
“We were in the library, so we went to a corner where there were a ton of books,” she said. “We went to the corner as fast as we could.”
Roberts thinks people should take the drills seriously:
“Teachers should keep doing the drills. They know what to do.”
MUMS held a lockdown drill on March 27.
Seventh-grader Dahlia Harrison-Irwin said her class “stayed silent (for the most part), and squeezed into the corner. Some people lined up against the wall, and our teacher was sort of angry because she said they were in plain sight and too exposed.”
“It is sad that from a young age we are just trained to be silent and sit in a corner for fear of a shooter coming for us,” she added.
In another class a teacher handed out Jolly Rancher candies during the drill. When asked if the teacher had offered them as a plea or a reward for silence, seventh-grader Carter Lee said he wasn’t sure. “Probably a little bit of both.”
A few people in Lee’s class “pretended to pretend” the drill was real, he said, “but maybe they were nervous and trying to cover it up.”
In a previous lockdown drill, some of Lee’s classmates had made what he called “finger guns” and pretended that they were going to confront a potential shooter. Lee said he wasn’t sure what to make of that.
With or without candy, it’s hard for some students to stay quiet during drills.
“I was telling someone how loud my class was during the drill,” said seventh-grader Vivian Ross. “They said their class was so loud that if there had actually been a shooter in the school at the time, they’d probably all be dead.”
A TROUBLING TREND
When Addison County high school seniors graduated in 1983 more than 80 people had been shot to death in U.S. schools during their lives.
For the classes of 2001, that number climbed to more than 120.
During the life of the average Addison County high school senior this year that number has more than doubled to 255.
These teenagers have also experienced during their grade-school careers the implementation of lockdown drills in their schools, with protocols designed specifically to address the threat of an active shooter.
How, and to what extent, this has altered their learning environments remains to be seen.
(The Addison Independent contacted Mount Abe tenth-grader Mae Peterson to find out how she did on the math test she took immediately after March 28’s lockdown drill. As the story went to press Peterson had not yet gotten the test back.)
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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