When kids think a shooter is coming
Lockdowns have become an ordinary feature of the American school day. Even when there's no violence, children suffer the psychic consequences.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.
Locked behind their green classroom door, MaKenzie Woody and 25 other first-graders huddled in the darkness. She sat on the vinyl tile floor against a far 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 okay?"
In that moment, though, the 6-year-old didn't say anything at all, because she believed that a man with a gun was stalking the hallways of her school in the nation's capital, and MaKenzie 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 silver sedan parked just around the corner at 10:42 a.m., 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 children of DC Prep hid for 20 minutes, until police officers arrived at the crime scene around the corner and began to take note of where the 40-plus bullet casings had scattered. What did not arrive was the caravan of TV trucks and reporters that so often descend on schools when such scenes play out in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.
In the hours that followed, students began to unravel. Among the things they said: "Who's going to shoot me?" "I want to shoot people." "I want to shoot myself."
"The lockdowns," as MaKenzie calls them, have changed her, because the little girl with long braids and chocolate-brown eyes remembers what it was like before them, when she always felt safe at her school, and she knows what it's been like afterward, when that feeling disappeared.
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 Washington Post launched a database that tracked incidents of gun violence on campuses dating back to 1999, and the carnage in 2018 shattered every record.
Most shootings at schools: 25. Most people shot: 94. Most people killed: 33. Most students exposed to gunfire on their campuses: 25,332.
Nonetheless, school shootings remain relatively rare, even after a year of historic carnage on K-12 campuses. What's not rare are lockdowns, which have become a hallmark of American education and a byproduct of this country's inability to curb its gun violence epidemic. Lockdowns save lives during real attacks, but even when there is no gunman stalking the hallways, the procedures can inflict immense psychological damage on children convinced that they're in danger. And the number of kids who have experienced these ordeals is extraordinary.
More than 4.1 million students endured at least one lockdown in the 2017–18 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 country's largest cities.
The number of students affected eclipsed the populations of Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Vermont combined. But the total figure is likely much higher, because many school districts — including in Detroit and Chicago — do not track lockdowns and hundreds never make the news, particularly when they happen at urban schools attended primarily by children of color.
Still, on a typical day last school year, at least 16 campuses locked down, nine of them because of gun violence or the threat of it. The Post's final tally of lockdowns exceeded 6,200.
The sudden order to hunker down can overwhelm students, who have wept and soiled themselves, and written farewell messages to family members and wills explaining what should be done with their bicycles and PlayStations. The terror can feel especially acute right after school shootings like the one in Parkland, Fla., when kids are inundated with details from massacres that have taken the lives of students just like them.
In New York City earlier this year, rumors of a firearm on campus sparked panic at a Staten Island high school, where teens desperately texted and called their parents, begging for help, telling them, "I love you."
In Fremont, Nebraska, 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 barged in, they ordered the kids to put their hands up.
In Pensacola, Florida, 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."
And then there are the kids like MaKenzie, who have never heard of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine but have heard the sound of gunshots on the streets where they live and play and learn.
She cherishes few things more than school. All of MaKenzie's classes are her favorite, except for language arts, her "favorite favorite." The girl can read well beyond her grade level and has nearly memorized the story Monsters Don't Scuba Dive, said her mother, Gabrielle Woody, who works in an aftercare program at DC Prep.
MaKenzie didn't stop loving school because of the lockdowns, but she did think about them often. About how upsetting it was that they had interrupted her time to learn new words and different ways to add up numbers. About how scared she'd felt when some of the kids wouldn't stop making noise and how her teacher had offered them Smarties if they could just stay quiet for a little longer.
She'd also become wary of recess on the playground, where games of tag and climbs across the monkey bars had once been among the highlights of her days, "until the lockdowns happened," MaKenzie said. "I don't want to be outside because what if someone was shooting and we had to leave and we were too late and everybody got hurt?"
No district is exempt from the fallout of lockdowns, regardless of demographics or affluence, location, or security. School systems in every state and the District of Columbia had several last school year, the Post's analysis found, and they happened in buildings with as few as four students and as many as 5,000.
While various threats, sometimes referencing bombs, accounted for 15 percent of lockdowns, and police manhunts near campuses made up a similar share, at least 61 percent of lockdowns were related to firearms. Although most kids won't suffer long-term consequences, experts who specialize in childhood trauma suspect that a meaningful percentage will.
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 impact, of a lockdown.
"It's like an air bag," he said, because they save drivers' lives in car crashes, but the devices might also break noses and crack teeth. 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 what they refer to as "secure campus" mode, in which classroom and exterior doors are locked and no one enters or leaves the buildings but teachers can continue with instruction.
Some school districts still categorize that or similar measures as lockdowns, while others call them "lockouts," "building mode," or "sheltering in place." Though those scenarios can also unnerve children, the experiences are usually less jarring than turning the lights off and hiding in the corner. Still, because there are no universally accepted best practices, schools take dramatically different, and sometimes haphazard, approaches to preparing students.
Earlier this month, at Lake Brantley High in Florida, an unannounced active-shooter drill 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."
Kennedy-Paine and other experts agreed that drilling is essential, both to protect students from physical injury and to ease the stress of going through a real-life emergency, but the drills must be done with care. To illustrate the harm that a lockdown can do, Franci Crepeau-Hobson, a psychologist, pointed to a pair of schools she worked with in recent years.
In December 2013, a teenager killed a fellow senior at Colorado's Arapahoe High before taking his own life. As Crepeau-Hobson and her colleagues on the state's crisis response team treated students and staff in the aftermath, they found a school well prepared to care for teens struggling with grief and fear.
Not long after, Crepeau-Hobson was asked to help students from another high school outside Denver. In that case, an off-campus robbery and carjacking left two people shot, but no violence ever reached school grounds. "They were on lockdown for hours and hours," without any information to alleviate their dread, Crepeau-Hobson recalled. Afterward, she said, the school did little to ensure that its students felt okay, though many didn't. Teens suffered from stomach pain and headaches. Some struggled to focus in class. Others couldn't sleep.
"It was like, wow, this was what we see after a school shooting," she said. "They looked very much like kids we've seen from other major crises."
Compounding the problem for educators, according to the Post's analysis: A leading cause of lockdowns — threats — and a common effect — anxiety — are contagious, and they're each exacerbated by actual gun violence. Nationally, the seven days with the highest number of incidents leading to school lockdowns occurred in the two weeks after the bloodshed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Broward County, Florida, on Feb. 14.
It's not just mass killings, though, that leave children believing they might get shot in their classrooms. As Ajani Dartiguenave rode to school in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his mom one morning in October, he heard on the radio that a student at Butler High, about 20 miles away, had been gunned down in a hallway. Ajani, 12, didn't say anything about it at the time, recalled his mother, Claudia Charles, and she didn't discuss it with him. They live in an upscale neighborhood where crime is rare. He had never seen a gun in person or heard shots from his bedroom, and Charles, a nurse, wouldn't even let him play with water pistols. Not once did she imagine that the violence they'd heard about on the radio would make him feel unsafe.
Eleven days later, Ajani was studying English literature at Governors' Village STEM Academy when the intercom announced that the campus was being locked down. The seventh-grader didn't know that an anonymous threat, never in danger of being carried out, had elicited the response. He knew only that a boy in the community had been shot to death inside another school a week before, and that made Ajani think he would get shot, too.
As he and his friends sat on the floor, Ajani reached into his bookbag, adorned with a smiling cartoon anime character. Without making a sound, he pulled out a pencil, writing first on an index card and then a sheet of notebook paper. At the top, he scribbled his home address and his mom's name.
"I am sorry for anything I have done," he wrote.
"I am scared to death."
"I will miss you."
"I hope that you are going to be okay with me gone."