Van Beek: How to best prepare your children for a school lockdown (column)
After hearing about the Parkland shooting, and while in a school lockdown, a sixth grader and his best friend suspected that they, too, might die at school, so each of the boys wrote a will.
“Mom, I want to give my friend Javon everything that I own that includes the Xbox, games, and controllers, and all that comes with it.” In Javon’s instructions, he listed his PlayStation 4, his Xbox 360, and his dirt bike [to be given to his friend]. “I love you, my whole family, you mean the most to me. You gave me the clothes on my back, you fed me, and you were always by my side.”
At least 16 schools per day in the United States are on lockdown, and for many children, a lockdown can feel like the end, with children writing wills and sending family “final” text messages of love. In the past school year, 4.1 million students were in a lockdown.
At Homestake Peak School, last Friday, children were evacuated and then secured at the Eagle-Vail Pavilion, as local emergency services investigated. A bomb threat was made, and while it was a hoax, the fear it induced was very real. Our youngest are the ones most affected.
While multiple-victim school shootings receive extensive media coverage, their occurrences are relatively rare. There is no denying, however, that these tragedies are changing the culture of education and how our kids are growing up.
In Eagle County, where we are so used to the safety of our community, we assume that things like school shootings and bombings are merely events that happen elsewhere. While we don’t generally have security issues at our local schools, mental health concerns, which can cause school incidents, are prevalent everywhere — even in Happy Valley.
We also find that graphic news reports impact our young people almost as badly as if they experienced them first-hand. Boundaries of space and time are non-existent in our youngest children, so the images, sounds, and storylines can create genuine and imminent fear.
In a conversation with Lisa, the mother of two children who survived the Parkland School Shooting, where 17 died and 17 more were injured, she recounts how her kids reacted.
The shooting began at the end of the day, around 2:21 p.m., and only lasted a few minutes, but the shooter was at large for about an hour and 20 minutes. Her daughter, in 11th grade, was in a different building from the shooter, although, she was uncertain of his location. She escaped the building and ran to the nearby Walmart.
Lisa’s son texted his mom from under his desk, uncertain of how close the shooter might be and wondering if he would make it out alive. He could hear children screaming and banging on doors to be let in, with teachers afraid that the shooter might also enter and kill all the kids hiding inside. They relive those screams every day.
After the area was determined safe, her son was escorted down the hallway, where he could see blood and hear the screams of his friends echoing throughout the building. As he exited the school, with hands up, he was overwhelmed by the media, ambulances, helicopters, police sirens, frantic parents, and crying kids.
He desperately looked for his parents but couldn’t locate them. He was wandering in circles looking for help. He walked about a mile, with no security, in search of somewhere safe. He didn’t even realize that he still had his hands up. Many kids were in shock and wandering for hours, lost.
Lisa found her daughter immediately with her phone’s Life360 app. Her son did not have it downloaded and they were frantically searching until he reached them.
That night, the kids did not want to be alone, yet did not want to sleep in their parents’ room. The media was parked outside and by morning, it was overwhelming. Lisa decided that a hotel allowed the family to sleep together, and they decided that the best place would be the “Happiest Place on Earth”… Disney World. They spent the next week at the Magic Kingdom, avoiding the fireworks show and attempting to regain their innocence. This had been the worst Valentine’s Day imaginable.
Initially, anger set in, followed by massive insecurity. The children didn’t go to school for months. Many of their friends dropped out or chose to homeschool. All have varying degrees of PTSD, relating to sounds, video games, movies, cable news, or anything violent. Her son left after the first monthly lockdown drill. Hiding in a closet while awaiting an imaginary killer had him reliving the terror of that day.
The question becomes, what can we do as parents to help our children cope with the possible but improbable events of the world?
Nothing is more frightening to a parent than being unable to reach your child in crisis.
While we cannot control the events of the world, we can do our best to prepare. Asking your school for a copy of their lockdown and evacuation plan can help in locating your child during an emergency. Downloading a GPS locator app can be helpful if your child is unable to contact you. Establish a safe location for your child to go if they are separated from their group. Reduce exposure to the news when school tragedies occur. Remember that children react differently and anticipate the possibility of emotional uncertainty with its related reactions.
In discussing lockdowns with your child, try to keep it age appropriate and not frightening. An approach might be to explain it like a fire drill … it is an emergency procedure that is in place to assure your safety because unexpected things happen. Trust those in charge and follow directions.
Be aware that to some kids, drills are simply routine procedures. For others, it evokes terrifying images and they will react accordingly. If a child feels continually unsafe, they may suffer symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, academic decline, and may turn to substance abuse for emotional pain relief.
In Colorado, after the Columbine incident, an app (Safe2Tell) was created to allow children to anonymously report anything that frightens them in school. While it was designed to prevent shootings, it is increasingly being used for suicide prevention.
While school shootings are a recent phenomenon and are rare, it can be frightening for all involved. Trust that the professionals who care for your children are trained and ready. We will put our lives on the line to make sure your kids are safe.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.