Nation & World

Lockdowns become hallmark of American education

They can traumatize kids but educators seldom have options

Gabrielle Woody, center, with her children, MaKenzie, right, and Kayden Imes at their DC Prep Charter Elementary School campus in Washington, D.C. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)
Gabrielle Woody, center, with her children, MaKenzie, right, and Kayden Imes at their DC Prep Charter Elementary School campus in Washington, D.C. (Bill O’Leary/Washington Post)
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Locked behind their green classroom door, MaKenzie Woody and 25 other first-graders huddled in the darkness. She sat on the tile floor against a wall, beneath a taped-up list of phrases the kids were encouraged to say to each other: “I like you,” “You’re a rainbow,” “Are you OK?”

In that moment, though, the 6-year-old didn’t say anything because she believed a man with a gun was stalking the hallways of her school in the nation’s capital. She feared what he might do to her.

Three times between September and November, bursts of gunfire near MaKenzie’s public charter elementary school led DC Prep to seal off its Washington campus and sequester its students. During the last one, on Nov. 16, a sedan parked just around the corner, then the men inside stepped out and fired more than 40 rounds. As MaKenzie’s class hid upstairs, teachers frantically rushed three dozen preschoolers off the playground and back into the building.

“The lockdowns,” as MaKenzie calls them, have changed her because the little girl remembers what it was like before them, when she felt safe at school.

School shootings remain rare, even after 2018, a year of historic carnage on K-12 campuses. But what’s not rare are lockdowns, which have become a hallmark of American education.

Lockdowns save lives during the rare attack at a school or — much more common — protect children when there is a potential threat outside, such as an armed robber or dangerous animal in the vicinity.

That is not so say, though, that lockdowns enacted even for the whiff of a threat cannot cause psychological issues for children. And the number of kids across the nation who have experienced these ordeals is extraordinary.

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More than 4.1 million students endured at least one lockdown in the 2017-2018 school year alone, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by the Washington Post that included a review of 20,000 news stories and data from school districts in 31 of the largest cities.

None of the districts were in Iowa, but lockdowns in the state are hardly unheard of.

According to the Iowa School Safety Alliance, there are three general levels of lockdowns: One is clearing the hallways and ushering students into classrooms, where instruction continues. The next level is locking exterior doors but not classroom doors, delaying dismissal time if necessary, but continuing indoor activities. And the highest level is locking interior and exterior doors, turning off classroom lights, moving away from sight lines of doors and windows and sheltering in place for those not in a classroom.

Last month, schools in the Iowa City district went on “soft lockdown” — exterior doors locked and recess moved inside — when two schools there were among those nationwide that received threats that authorities determined to be a hoax.

That same month, a Burlington middle school went on a higher level of lockdown after someone reported suspicious people headed toward the school. Teachers turned out classroom lights and police arrived. But the lockdown lasted only 45 minutes until it was discovered those suspicious people where just a new family in town walking their child to school for the first time.

“But better safe than sorry,” Superintendent Pat Coen told the Burlington Hawk Eye. “By all means, if we tell citizens and students if you see something, say something, then we mean that, by golly.”

Indeed, the possibility of imminent danger — however small — poses a complex challenge for school administrators, who sometimes must make critical decisions within seconds.

“We have to take every threat seriously” is a common refrain among educators, and they’re right — the cost of ignoring one can be deadly.

John Czajkowski, a former teacher and naval officer who heads security for a 40,000-student district near San Diego, uses an analogy to help people understand the purpose — and possible impact — of a lockdown.

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“It’s like an air bag,” he said. They save lives in car crashes, but the devices also might break noses and crack teeth. His point: Full-scale lockdowns should be employed only when absolutely necessary.

Last school year, the system Czajkowski oversees, Sweetwater Union High School District, dealt with 71 student threats, he said, but only seven times did schools lock down and five of those were prompted by off-campus danger, such as a burglary or gunfire. In 11 instances, schools went into “secure campus” mode, in which classroom and exterior doors are locked and no one enters the buildings but teachers continue with instruction.

Some districts categorize that or similar measures as lockdowns, while others call them “lockouts,” “building mode” or “sheltering in place.” Though those scenarios also can unnerve children, the experiences are usually less jarring than turning the lights off and hiding.

Still, because there are no universally accepted best practices, schools take dramatically different — and sometimes haphazard — approaches to preparing students for potential danger.

Like this, for instance:

Earlier this month, at Lake Brantley High in Florida, an active-shooter drill that was not announced in advance induced pandemonium across the 2,700-student campus, leaving mothers and fathers furious and their kids contending with nightmares.

“People were crying and texting their parents goodbye and having asthma attacks,” said Cathy Kennedy-Paine, head of the National Association of School Psychologists’ crisis response team. “To do that to children, I think that’s unconscionable.”

A sudden order to hunker down sometimes can overwhelm students, who have wept and soiled themselves, written farewell messages to family members and made out wills explaining what should be done with their bikes and toys.

In Fremont, Neb., students sobbed as they hid for nearly two hours in a girls’ locker room with the lights turned off after a teenager was spotted with a gun. When armed officers arrived, they ordered the kids to put their hands up.

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In Pensacola, Fla., a sixth-grader messaged his grandmother, certain a shooter was in the building after social media threats triggered a lockdown. “Please check me out before I doe,” he wrote her, then corrected his misspelling: “die.”

While most kids won’t suffer long-term consequences, experts who specialize in childhood trauma suspect a meaningful percentage will.

“This is a clear and pressing public health issue,” said Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, after learning of the Post’s findings.

“We have very good data that children in proximity to frightening circumstances, such as those that trigger school lockdowns, are at risk for lasting symptoms. These include everything from worsening academic and social progression to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, post-traumatic symptomatology and substance abuse.”

In April, the country will mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High, and that day will arrive in the aftermath of the worst year of school shootings in modern American history.

Last spring, The Post launched a database that tracked incidents of gun violence on campuses dating to 1999, and the carnage in 2018 shattered every meaningful record.

Most shootings at schools: 25.

Most people shot: 94.

Most people killed: 33.

Most students exposed to gunfire on their campuses: 25,332.

“There was once a time where we could say schools are the safest place for a child to be, and they would agree,” said Steven Berkowitz, a psychiatrist who has worked with kids for 25 years. “They wouldn’t now, even though it’s still true. The perception of safety is no longer there.”

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