Lockdown: A teacher’s aide recalls procedures, fears to keep children safe

Today’s gun control debate often misses the effect school shootings have on the staff and students who experience the fear of this very real threat every day.

With students across the nation participating in the National School Walkout protest for gun control, I keep thinking about an experience I had while working as a teacher’s aide in a public charter school in Los Angeles called Citizens of the World: Silver Lake.

In addition to supporting lead teachers in the classroom with lessons, the teacher’s aides were responsible for any time students were outside. That meant lining up the students quickly and (sigh) as quietly as possible, getting wiggly bodies and giggly mouths as still as we could, as organized as we could, so we could file quickly out the door. On the day I keep remembering, we were practicing a lockdown drill.

I was always kind but stern with my kids — to help them learn self-discipline and provide consistency. It didn’t work, of course. There were secrets to be whispered, jokes to be told and enemies to annoy with bodily fluids. Somehow, I managed to get them all outside.

The kid performing the coveted job of line leader that week was taking it extra seriously. Teachers aren’t allowed to have favorites, but if we were, this serious-faced little 2nd grader who worked so hard to curl his g’s and dot his i’s would be mine.

It was winter, so the black-top wasn’t the open oven of heat-absorbing asphalt it was when I started this job in August, shepherding children to and from classes, clubs, and breaks. Today, the aides lined everyone up by class on the painted white lines of the foursquare court and sat them down as we waited for the rest of the school to enter the play yard. Finally, everyone was gathered outside.

A voice crackled over my walkie talkie, echoing across every aide’s walkie.

“Dr. Watson has lost his hat. I repeat, Dr. Watson has lost his hat.”*

The aide closest to the gate began walking her kids out towards the portable classrooms. The snaking classes followed one by one. It was a more or less orderly procession. We combined several classes into the nearest building.

This was a lockdown drill. Once inside, we shuttered the windows and turned off the lights and had the students sit in the corner with the carpet for reading, far away from the door. Then over the radios, “Dr. Watson has found his hat, I repeat, Dr. Watson has found his hat.” It was the all-clear signal.

By now half our students had started to lose it. They were 7-8 years old after all, and the drill was right before recess, which kids can sense coming like a shark sense blood in water. The excitement of doing something different had been replaced by a desperate need to play handball and reenact “Star Wars” immediately.

So one by one, the classes streamed out again, this time without the teachers carrying the emergency backpacks filled with the emergency contact information of the students and first-aid supplies. We lined the kids up, doing call and response games to keep their attention while they waited to be dismissed.

Suddenly the walkies crackled again, hard to hear over the roar of restless kids.

“Dr. Watson has lost his hat. I repeat — Dr. Watson has lost his hat.”

I looked up, stunned, and locked eyes with the other aides. The drill was supposed to be over. The signal, usually so silly, was suddenly the most terrifying thing I’d ever heard. I jerked the walkie to my ear, trying to confirm what I’d heard. But the aide down the line had heard it too. She got her her kids up and immediately headed back to the classrooms.

My kids were oblivious, still laughing and goofing around.

“Get up, get UP! We’re going back inside.” They half-obeyed. “Do it. NOW.”

Staff were instructed, in the event of an active shooter, to get everyone inside the closest building, as quickly as possible. Then we were to hide in the dark like rabbits while another teacher went around and jiggled the handles on the doors to check they were secured. We would stay like that until the all-clear signal.

Because of my class’s position towards the far end of the courts, we were the last class to stream up the diagonal ramp into the class. It was a slow process. One of my students, a nervous little blonde boy, stopped to ask, “What’s going on? When are we going to recess? What’s happening?”

“Stop asking questions and get inside NOW,” I snapped. He flinched like I’d slapped him, but I didn’t have time to explain. As the last kids came inside, my eyes scanned the playground, and back toward the front gate. It was always locked and you had to buzz in past a camera to get inside, but it was all too easy to catch up to a friendly person to hold it open for you. I searched frantically for signs of a gunman, listening for gunshots. How would I even know what to look for?

I will never forget the sinking fear as I stood by the wide-open door as my kids inched slowly — too slowly — into the portable classroom. It was an absolute knowledge that no matter what I’d learned up to that point about being a good teacher, about taking care of these small people I adored so much, I was still absolutely unprepared to protect them against a gun. And I also knew that even if a shooter couldn’t get inside the classrooms, just shooting through the paper-thin walls would kill plenty of us. It would kill plenty of my kids — like shooting animals in a pen.

We got lucky — it was a false alarm that day. The signal administrators had heard was from the other campus practicing the same drill after ours. They used the same walkie frequency as the upper campus. That student who had realized something was off? He became so sick with fear that he eventually had to go home after the all-clear signal and had nightmares that night.

That lockdown drill scare happened a few years ago. Driving around Los Angeles this week as students walked out of class on Wednesday to protest gun violence, demonstrating on what seemed to be every corner, I wondered how my old school was handling this. LAUSD had asked students to remain on campus – which the high schoolers were clearly were ignoring, I noted with some satisfaction (now that I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s safety). After all, we can’t keep our students safe on school grounds anyway, and they know it.

I spoke to a friend of mine, Liz Kleinrock, who works at CWC Silver Lake, to find out what the protests had looked like there. It was a progressive charter school that values social justice, so I knew they’d be supportive of free speech. With elementary schoolers, it’s a tricky line to walk between the horrifying reality and age-appropriate information. Parents get upset, understandably, when their kids go home terrified like my student did. But this is an age where information flows freely, even among very young children. Kleinrock noted the difficulties as well.

“We try to keep clear of as much graphic detail as possible,” she said. “We talk about the violence but not necessarily people getting shot.”

Then there’s the community of parents to address. CWC Silver Lake staff came together and released a statement to to the greater family community. Kleinrock said the notice stated that “regardless of how you stand on the Second Amendment, one thing we agree upon is that we do not believe in guns in schools and we commit to never carrying them.” It’s understandable — how many teachers have spent the necessary hours becoming experts on weapon safety, competent enough to have a weapon on them but not accidentally discharge it and hurt someone (which happened the very same week as the National School Walkout?). The idea of arming teachers is beyond ludicrous – as everyone seems to know except Republicans.

Still, Kleinrock and the other staff at CWC Silver Lake wanted to support their students expressing their opinions in as safe a way as possible. “Because we’re an elementary school, and we have this open campus, we structured our walkout as walking out of the classroom but staying on campus.” Each grade level came together to hold a “restorative justice circle.” I hadn’t heard of this before. 

She explained that a restorative justice circle is a place where repairs are made after a conflict has arisen. Sometimes they have to be held reactively after events have occurred. Today, it was a space for students to speak their thoughts and feelings on gun violence in schools. 

Kleinrock teaches 4th graders, who are about 9-10 years old. She was surprised by how much her students already knew.

“They had a lot of information and a lot of feelings to share,” she said. “The fears that they have are very real. What they really wanted to express and has expressed in the past, is that they’re very aware of what’s going on, even if adults don’t choose to tell them directly. They want a platform to be able to talk about it. Their awareness of the situation is what really surprised me, how much information they were already coming in with.”

The students knew that President Donald Trump and other politicians were advocating for arming teachers as a solution. It’s a wildly unpopular suggestion among both teachers and students, nationwide.

“[Students] said it’s absolutely absurd and that’s something they never want to have happen. Adding more weapons in school would not make it a safer place and would not make them feel safer. Firearms do not belong in school communities.”

The data backs her up on that.

“I want people to meet children where they’re at,” she said. “I think I would like adults to reflect upon whether what they are or aren’t talking about with their children is due to where your kids are developmentally or if it reflects an uncertainty in ourselves about our beliefs, and where we want to take a stand. This effects everyone, not just students and schools. We overall need to think proactively, not reactively.”

*For safety, I have changed the school’s actual warning phrase.