Active Shooter Drills: The New Duck and Cover

When these drills are conducted, the kindergarteners are just terrified.

Here’s everything you need to know about our warped American gun culture: When looking up statistics for the number of mass shootings in this country, I was actually relieved to discover that, according to this report in Statista, since 1982, these atrocities have only occurred in 38 states (plus Washington DC). We’re still horrified by these events, but we’re also becoming habituated to them.

Of course, Statista goes on to clarify that they’re only counting those shootings that were reported. They also note that, “since 2013, the source defines a mass shooting as any single attack in a public place with three or more fatalities, in line with the definition by the FBI. Before 2013, a mass shooting was defined as any single attack in a public place with four or more fatalities.” So the numbers are probably a bit low. Great.

They also point out that, of the 137 incidents considered, 13 of the worst mass shootings in the United States have occurred since 2015. The vast majority of the shooters in these incidents were white males, and since 2000, police have intercepted 351 active shooter incidents in the U.S. Until we call these events what they are, domestic terrorism, they’ll never be taken seriously by this government. But this government is hesitant to call white males terrorists. Or rapists. Or anything else, for that matter.

When I was in public school in the late 70’s, early 80’s, one time, one time, someone brought a knife into a classroom. It was a huge scandal. The kid didn’t even use it, and he wasn’t even in any of my classes, but it took me months to feel safe again after that. It just didn’t occur to anyone at the time to bring weapons onto school grounds. Well, except for that kid. He’s probably the CEO of some major corporation now.

Little did I know that those were the salad days of public education. I fell in the sweet spot between duck and cover and active shooter drills. I was never made to crawl under my desk in anticipation of nuclear annihilation or bloody death. Not once.

Nowadays, kids are subjected to those active shooter drills along with their totally whitewashed and historically inaccurate lessons. I often wonder how that is fundamentally changing this generation’s perspective. It’s sad to contemplate. My research on the topic broadened my worldview to the extent that it is resulting in three posts, of which this is the first.

According to this article, as of 2017, 95 percent of all public schools conduct active shooter drills. They can be as mild as just going through the motions of turning off lights and locking doors to the extreme of playing gunshot sounds over the loudspeakers while actors dressed as gunmen roam the halls. I don’t know about you, but that extreme end would seriously freak me out, and I’m 57. I can’t imagine how a 7-year-old would handle it. A kindergarten teacher told me recently that when these drills are conducted, she tries to keep the students calm, but they’re just terrified.

The article goes on to describe a study that was conducted by Georgia Tech regarding active shooter drills. Just by comparing the social media texts of community members from 90 days before a drill to 90 days after, they concluded that there is a 42 percent spike in anxiety and a 39 percent increase in depression for months afterward, and not just in the students. The teachers and parents were similarly impacted.

Frankly, I’m of the opinion that drills, as we Americans conduct them, don’t actually prepare you for any catastrophic event. They don’t empower you. Our drills teach fear and panic. When the stuff hits the fan, if you’ve been living in a state of constant, low-grade fear as politicians make us do, all bets are off. You get primal. And quite often you make poor decisions. Now, throw hundreds of small children into that mix, and you have chaos. I’ll be offering suggestions as to how to improve these drills in my third post.

But these drills, in their current format and cultural context, are nothing other than safety theater. They allow bureaucrats to give the impression that they’re doing something, when, if they really wanted to do something, they’d be advocating against weaponry, beefing up security, and insisting upon more mental health professionals on staff. Instead, we want to look like we’re doing something, so we do something. Not the right thing. Not the reasonable thing. Not the thing that makes an actual difference. But, hey, we are doing something.

While wondering about the psychological effects of active shooter drills, I began to think about the duck and cover drills that, thank God, had just stopped being commonplace a year or two before I went to school. I really feel sorry for those who had to experience them. I probably would have been that child who said, “Why do you think our desk will protect us from a bomb? How stupid is that?” And then I would have done what I was told, because I may have had a big mouth, but I was still a good kid.

I happen to be a member of a Facebook group that is mostly comprised of women from the duck and cover era, so I decided, out of curiosity, to ask them what their experience was like. I did this a about a year ago. I don’t know why it took me so long to write this blog post. Perhaps I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of insight I would gain from these women. (I had good intentions of getting this done. I lugged about 150 printed out pages of their comments back and forth to work for months. My backpack is so heavy that it triggers my car to insist on a passenger side seat belt, such is the weight of my unfinished projects.)

My post to that group said the following: “I am just young enough to have missed those cold war bomb drills that children used to have to do. You know. Duck and cover, because your desk will save you. (Sheesh.) I was wondering how many of you remember doing that. What did you think as a child? Do you think it changed the way you view the world? Was there common knowledge that these drills were an insane waste of time back then, or was there a general buy-in of this concept?

Those questions must have hit a nerve, because I got 400 replies. I wasn’t expecting that. No two people are the same, so naturally there were a variety of ways that these kids processed the duck and cover experience.

I’d say that about 55 percent were either bored silly by these drills, thinking of it as a nice break from math class, and/or too clued in to think that duck and cover would do any good at all. At the other end of the spectrum, about 30 percent were seriously freaked out by the process. (I’m quite sure I would have been in this group, even if I had been clued in.) The rest seemed to have been confused by it all, and since the adults around them weren’t telling them anything rational or understandable or true, they didn’t know what to think. That’s a really unpleasant state for a child to be in.

The 50’s and 60’s were a high stakes time to be a kid in America. Most of that generation had no expectations of living to adulthood. During the cold war, the brinkmanship displayed made them feel like the inmates were running the asylum. And when they heard about Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table, the kind of thing that really gets a child’s attention, that provided them with all the confirmation they needed that the adults in charge were crazy. (The shoe incident made such an impression on me, a decade after the fact, that to this day I could swear I’d seen footage of it, but no such footage exists. Isn’t that strange?)

That generation’s anxiety reached its peak during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many of children concluded that the Russians hated them personally and wanted to kill them, but they didn’t understand why. They came by their reactions honestly. Here is some of the propaganda of the era that they were treated to every single day:

These kids also bore witness to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and both Kennedys. And, lest we forget, many of these children were growing up in the south and dealing with the KKK, segregation, and an utter lack of human rights as well, so they felt more anxiety from terrorists within the country than they did from communists a half a world away.

What follows are several points that the amazing women in my Facebook group proffered for your consideration. I’ll paraphrase the comments and avoid specifics so that I don’t have to track people down to get permission to quote them. (Sorry, ladies.)

Duck and Cover Drills came in a variety of forms. As the name implies, many students had to crawl under their desks with their hands protecting their necks and/or the backs of their heads. Others were ushered into hallways to hunker down in rows, facing the walls or the banks of lockers. Some went down into the creepy, dirty basements of their schools. One woman reported that her class had to walk single file, with the teacher at the head, and she’d drop them off at their houses, one by one by one. (I’m assuming this was a small town.) Not only was that hard on the teacher, but it must have been creepy for the last group of children on the route, thinking about radiation raining down upon them with every step they took. Location, location, location, as the saying goes.

There seemed to be a wide range of communication or lack thereof, about these drills. Some kids were told entirely too much, in my opinion. Small children should not be shown videos of mushroom clouds and disintegrating buildings and melting bodies. Eight-year-olds shouldn’t memorize all the signs and symptoms of radiation poisoning or be instructed on the best ways to build and stock bomb shelters. All that should be the realm of adults.

On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of children were not told anything at all, and were left to draw their own, sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying conclusions, including the following:

  • “Fallout” meant things falling from the ceiling, and therefore climbing under their desks made perfect sense.
  • The Russians would come and take them from their parents and/or they’d never see their families again.
  • Bombs must not be much of a threat if the solution was to hide under a desk.
  • Every plane that flew over had the potential to kill them.
  • I don’t want to die crouching in a hallway.
  • While we do these drills in school, are the adults doing the same thing in the bomb shelters?
  • My parents will be blindsided unless they keep the radio on.
  • These floors are really dirty.
  • The boys are trying to look up my skirt.
  • At least we don’t have to freeze outside like we do for fire drills.
  • How will I find my family?
  • Walking home was scary, because if a plane flew over you didn’t have your desk to save you.
  • Some were scared for their parents because they didn’t have a teacher to keep them safe like the kids did.
  • The Communists or some vague enemy would break in any minute, and that would be the end.
  • They only practiced these drills at school, so school seemed dangerous.
  • One girl, whose school had them pressing their noses against a wall, thought that the paint must be strong if it could save her from the bomb.

Some children comforted themselves with the belief that nothing bad was going to ever happen to them because they lived in America and that was the safest, smartest, strongest place in the world. Others thought that since Russia beat us into space, they must be more militarily advanced. Those were likely the same children who went home and tried to build bomb shelters out of cardboard boxes in their back yards or basements. One brilliant girl even surrounded hers with lead pencils, because she had heard that lead would protect her.

In hindsight, many women were grateful for the honesty some adults were willing to provide. Some kids were told how painful their deaths might be, and actually found comfort in the idea that they were at ground zero and would die instantly. Photographs from Hiroshima made it clear that immediate death would be preferable. One woman remembers being grateful for just being sent home to be with her family during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At least that was honest.

And I found this quite interesting. It seems that nearly everyone was told that their location was a prime target. They lived near military bases. They lived near factories or power plants or big cities like Washington DC, New York, or Chicago. They lived near a transportation hub. In the heartland, the communists would target their farms to starve the country. And everyone in Florida, to this very day, knows that Cuba is only 90 miles away.

Everyone seemed to believe that they would be the first to go. No one stopped to think that Russia couldn’t bomb everywhere at once. If they could, there would be nothing left of this planet.

No matter what they thought, these kids did these drills because that’s what they were told to do. Unfortunately, they were told to do some very insane things. I’ll discuss that in my next post, The Insanity of Duck and Cover.

Special thanks to the women of the Facebook Group Crones of Anarchy!, for revealing so much about their duck and cover experiences. You guys are awesome!

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