Code Red Lockdown

Let’s talk about Lockdown Drills.

We’ve been doing them longer than some might think. I remember the first year we began implementing them—the year after 9/11. I don’t remember if the reason was because of 9/11 or if there had been a rash of school shootings, but during an early staff meeting, we were told that everyone was to begin lockdown drills in addition to fire drills.

I thought: they can’t mean me. How am I supposed to do a lockdown drill with kindergarteners? What do I tell them?

The kids already knew how to do a fire drill. We heard the bell. We got up from our desks. We lined up at the door. We walked out to the fence line and waited for the bell to ring again. Done. It was…like a parade. They behaved like it was a parade, anyway. There was a certain bounce to their step. They waved shyly to siblings and friends along the way. Everyone behaved very well, but it was a parade. Not a real fire.

The lockdown drill was to happen the next day. I thought long and hard about what to tell my little ones. I decided to make it as much of a game as I could because the reality was we’d probably never have a school shooting. Why traumatize them?

I told them when we heard the speaker say, “Code red,” we were going to make a game of hide n seek in the classroom—the best we could. I gave them permission to have as many as could fit in the class bathroom. Extra treats for cooperation in squeezing whoever wanted to be in there. They could even stand on the toilet, something that was normally completely against the rules. We could hide in the little book library in the corner. Together we came up with ways we could hide. The giggling was contagious.

“Under desks?”

“Yes!” I said.

“Under your desk, Teacher?”

“Yes! See how many of you fit there.”

I told them I would have to close the blinds and I would have to turn off the lights. Because we were hiding. Pretending like no one was home. I allowed the whispers and quiet laughter. What harm was there in shielding them from the truth of preparing for a horror show?

That was the best I could come up with that first practice drill. The kids were nearly celebratory as they took up their places. The whole drill lasted about 5 minutes. Afterward, I let them play. Teacher needed a mental health minute to process what we’d just done.

I thought long and hard about what I had taught them. That rules can be broken for unclear reasons? That it was okay for the teacher to lock them inside in the dark? That school wasn’t always a safe place? What trust boundaries had we crossed in those moments?

Fast forward a few months and we had a real “Code red.”

I wasn’t prepared for it. I was in the middle of a lesson. The kids were quietly going about learning.

“Code Red,” said the speaker.

I jumped up from my reading group. The real thing—this was it. I didn’t know what the danger was or where it was coming from. I didn’t know which door to lock first. My hands shaking, I went to the door nearest to me, and began speaking to the children, “This is our Code Red drill, guys. Who remembers how we do this? Are we ready to play our hide n seek game?”

I went to the front door. Locked it. The kids were a whirlwind, a mass of noise, going to their respective hiding places. Some of them remembered. Some of them didn’t, and stood in the middle of the room like lost puppies. I lowered and closed the blinds. “How about under your desk, Brandon? Can you hide there?” Off went the lights.

A minute passed. Then another.

I crawled over in the direction of soft crying. A little boy grabbed me around my neck. “I don’t like the dark,” he said.

“It’s okay. I won’t leave you,” I said.

Another child hugged onto me from behind.

The minutes ticked by. More weeping as children emerged from the bathroom to huddle next to us on the floor. Pretty soon I had all of them in my lap, clinging to my neck, touching me in some way. A corner of my dress balled up in small hands. It seemed to take forever. Where was the “all-clear?”

Finally, finally. The all-clear came.

We had a playtime. We talked about the dark. We talked about what had just happened and how we could make it better.

That time, no one was actually shooting up the school. It was an armed suspect running through the neighborhood and a police chase. We were lucky.

But it seems like we had one real Code Red every year.

And during that time when I was taking care of someone else’s children, hoping no gunman would come to us—I worried about my own son in another classroom. My daughter in her classroom. I prayed they weren’t at recess or they hadn’t left the classroom to go to the bathroom, or the library, or the speech therapist, or to take attendance to the office. I hoped no child was left wandering out alone as the doors were being locked across campus.

And now, looking back, I wonder, if we had been armed teachers, at what point was I supposed to get my gun out of the small storage box where my purse was kept? When would I have loaded it? While I was on the floor in a dog pile of children?

I can’t even fathom this when the lockdown by itself was so traumatizing. I’m still left with the shocking memory of waiting out those moments in the dark wondering if a blast of gunfire would break the windows and kill us anyway.