“The lights went off in the middle of lunch. That was when the criminals appeared. This is what happened. Everybody screamed, ‘The school is on fire!’ The sound of a rifle echoed across the walls. All of the students ran into the bathrooms to hide. The intruders came in. The kids were cornered.”
This was the start of a story that my fourth grade son brought home from school earlier this year. I asked him about it, but he didn’t want to say much except that the first sentence had been given to the class and they were asked to continue the story. Not long before that, the same son had asked me whether I ever used to feel scared about going to school. My heart felt heavy. How have we gotten to this place where school and violence are so often associated with each other?
In March I claimed a half-day assignment in a second grade class at a school on St. Paul’s east side. Ms. Romo, the classroom teacher, had requested a half day off of teaching to catch up on paperwork and I had taken over her role midday. Just a few minutes after Ms. Romo left the room, a school staff member announced over the intercom that we’d now have a “lockdown with warning.” When they had heard this, the second graders scrambled out of their seats toward the wall farthest from the classroom door. Someone turned out the lights, a few other students started pulling down window shades. Two girls started crying. Actually one had been whimpering ever since she’d come back from the buddy room. There she’d heard from another student that Angel had “almost got kidnapped” during recess, which sounded hard to believe to me, but had sent this young girl into a panic.
There was a knock on the door, only adding to a sense of fear that had been rising in the classroom. They seemed to be afraid that someone was coming for them. Then we heard the key turn in the lock. Ms. Romo entered the room just as emotions were nearing the point of hysteria. I took a deep breath, thankful that a trusted adult could help me calm them down.
She called them to a circle on the carpet and reminded them that “lockdown with warning” meant they could continue with their regular classroom procedures with the classroom door closed. This was not as severe as “lockdown with intruder,” which required additional safety measures – though she didn’t go into detail about what they’d do differently in that situation. Then she gave them all a chance to share how they felt. She reminded them that they need not get all worked up when they hear a rumor, something that has not been verified. She told them, “You need to trust that the adults at school will keep you safe.”
I wanted to believe her – as I’m sure many of the children wanted to believe her – but hadn’t they heard too many news reports to the contrary? Just the month prior, in Parkland, Florida, 17 people were killed. Not long after this incident, in a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, 10 were wounded and 10 killed.
The New York Times has labeled us “a nation plagued with mass school shootings.” I read that one reporter interviewed a student in Santa Fe and asked if there was a part of her that thought this would never happen at her school. The student responded, “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.” Who could blame the kids in St. Paul – including my own – for thinking any differently?