Tuesday, December 9, 2014

When Tragedy Strikes Close to Home: Inside A School Lockdown

Today started just like any normal weekday would.

I dropped my son off at his school.

I signed him in, gave him a hug, and off he ran to the table where his friends were sitting, building Legos, as they do every morning before the school day begins.

As I waved to the teacher standing in the cafeteria, I silently passed the baton to her.

I transferred my little boy into her care.

I placed his life in her hands.

Most days I do not think about this.

Most days I am busy thinking ahead to the many things I have to get accomplished as soon as I walk into my own classroom at the school down the street.

Most days, I don’t allow fear into my heart.

I trust God to keep me safe and to keep my family safe.

But the fact remains that evil lurks in this world and our safety is not always guaranteed.

Too often I open the newspaper only to read about another school shooting or some other senseless tragedy.

I shudder and hug my little boy close.

My heart has ached for the families torn apart by senseless violence and I imagine what I would do if I were in the shoes of the grieving parents. 

I cry as I watch moms and dads break down in tears on national TV. 

I scream at the unfairness of lives taken away before their time. 

And I marvel at the bravery of the teachers who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives to protect children who are not even their own flesh and blood.  And they do this without hesitation. 

But once the most current tragedy is no longer front page news, the events begin to fade from my mind.  I need them to fade because I cannot handle the pain of it.  It is too much.  And, for a time, the gnawing fear subsides.  I breathe again, because the threat seems far away once more.

Today was not that day.

Today the threat felt very real and very close. 

Today my school went under lockdown.

I have been teaching for thirteen years, so a school lockdown is not new to me.

But this lockdown was different. 

This time my son was locked down at his school down the street, and a very real killer was on the loose in the neighborhood. 

Only I didn’t know this at the time. 

Let me walk you through my day, minute by minute.

Because when you are in a lockdown, every moment counts.

2:50 pm- My school is in the midst of the end of day dismissal.  Throngs of students flood the hallways as they head for home.  Suddenly, my principal’s voice booms on the intercom, announcing a lockdown.  All students and staff are to report to interior classrooms immediately.  Adults spring into action all around me.  The Media Specialist and I begin rounding up all nearby children and usher them into my classroom.   I glance at my colleague as we work side by side, and I notice an urgency and intensity in her manner that lets me know she is aware of something very real and dangerous happening.  This is no drill.  I lock the doors and turn off all the lights.  I feel my way to the back of the corner of my classroom, the spot farthest from the doors.  We huddle quietly, behind the bookshelves, out of sight.  We huddle in the darkness and wait.

2:51 pm- Less than a minute later, our principal returns on the loudspeaker and ends the lockdown but asks all adults to help escort students off campus in a safe and orderly manner.  Students and teachers fill the hallways, and as we pass by each other, our eyes all ask each other the same question. “What is going on?  Are we really safe?”  Through whispered snatches of conversation, I come to realize that there has been a tragedy in the neighborhood.  Two women have been murdered in a home nearby, and the pastor of a local church has been found dead.  The woman’s husband is believed to be the killer.  Three murders in two separate locations, and the man is at large.  From what we can gather from information in the local paper, this man is the father of six children, and he is currently trying to get to the kids.  Four other schools in our area have been locked down.  One of those schools is my son’s.  Once the children at my school are safely in their buses and cars, I race to my cell phone to find out about my son.

3:00 pm- I pace the assistant principal’s office, one of the few places in the school where I can get cell phone reception.  Finally, my phone finds a signal, and voicemail messages come flooding through.  The first is an automated message from the principal at my son’s school from 2 pm.  Their school had been locked down over an hour ago.  The next message, at 2:45 pm, was his principal saying the lockdown had been lifted.  My heart sinks as I realize that my kindergarten son had been sitting in lockdown for the past 45 minutes.  I immediately send a text message my son’s teacher to check on the situation.  She quickly texts me back, reassuring me that Ben did great during the lockdown and all was fine.  Finally, I can start to breathe again.  I begin responding to the other texts in my inbox.  I call my husband and mother, both of whom had received the lockdown alert, and I reassure them that the immediate crisis has passed.  But the fear is still inside me.  The man is still at large, possibly in the area.  And he is looking for his children.  My heart is breaking for those children and the families whose lives are now forever altered.

4:00 pm- I am back in my classroom, meeting with a group of teachers, trying to get back to business as usual but failing miserably.  All of us are still tense from the events that have unfolded.  Once the teachers become involved with their work and no longer need my help, I can’t handle it any longer. I have to get to my son, so I say goodbye and head to his school.

4:15 pm- I arrive at my son’s school after driving past several undercover police officers, stationed quietly on side streets, watching and waiting diligently.  Several parents wait impatiently in the front office, though I suspect that the room was packed with concerned adults an hour earlier.  The parents around me question the office staff.  “What’s going on?  Why was the school locked down?  Is everything okay now?”  Everyone wears the same tense expression.  I collect my son and quickly head home.

It is not until the next day after school when I get a chance to talk to Ben’s teacher about what happened during the lockdown.

Lockdown drills are scary for all kids, but they have been downright unbearable for Ben in the past.  Last year when he was in PreKindergarten, he screamed during an entire lockdown drill.  The immediate change in routine coupled with the need to keep his voice and body still had been just too much for him.  Luckily, last year’s drills were only practice. 
This year's lockdown was different for Ben.  Ben’s teacher spoke to her students and talked to them about keeping their bodies calm and still.  She soothed them through the entire 45 minutes.   She said that every time she looked over at Ben, he was doing exactly what she asked, and she would praise him for keeping his body calm.  In my mind I can see her class of kindergarteners huddled in the corner for 45 minutes while she kept watch over them as each moment ticked by.  Each moment was filled with uncertainty about what was happening in the neighborhood around her and yet, she kept herself calm for the sake of the children.  For the sake of my son.

Ben’s teacher and I have both been working hard to help Ben to learn to control his emotions.   Tiny things that would probably not bother you and I can cause him to lose his composure in a very short time.   He gets upset and shrieks loudly when he drops his pencil or paper on the floor.   He has a hard time waiting, and sitting for a few moments when he really wants to do something can cause him to become unglued.  His teacher is also working on getting him to follow her directions, like coming to the carpet with the other children right away, even if he hasn’t finished his current classwork.   I know this is an important skill for him to master as a learner. 

But, today, I realized that Ben’s ability to follow his teacher’s directions has a much greater purpose.

If, heaven forbid, the worst ever did happen and an assailant found his way into my son’s school, following an adult's directions could literally save his life and the lives of the children and teachers in that room. 

I am so grateful that the calming techniques that we are teaching Ben are working.  

Because keeping calm and quiet if the worst were to occur could potentially be life saving.

So, to Ben’s teacher, and to all teachers, I would like to say this.

Thank you.

I simply do not have the words to express the gratitude I feel for what you do every day.

I owe you a debt that I can never repay.

I know that your job is not easy.

You deal with so much every day. 

Parents who complain that you are not doing your job correctly.

Publishing companies that tell you how to teach.  

Meetings that steal away your precious time.

Copy machines that jam during your few minutes of planning time.

Colleagues that get sick, and that you have to cover for.

You come to school early, work through your lunch, and continue to work late into the night.

And, even when you are not working, you are thinking and worrying about your students.

Thank you is not enough.

Not only do you teach your heart out every day, but you do this while making sure that children like my son safe, nurtured, and loved.

You protect them in so many ways.

You watch for suspicious people on campus.

You are vigilant on the playground while the children play at recess.

You keep a walkie talkie with you and stay alert about situations occurring in the community.

You check to make sure that your students get home the right way at dismissal, and with the correct person.

And then, you make time to stay and talk to parents like me.

So, for all this, and so much more, I say thank you.

Thank you for teaching my son. 

Thank you for keeping him safe.

Thank you for always being available to me.

And, despite all the external factors that make teaching so difficult and often disheartening, thank you for doing it anyway.

Every day.

Every hour.

Every minute.

Thank you.

***Author's Note:  As of the time of publication, the man responsible for the murders of his wife, his neighbor, and the pastor of the local church has confessed and has been charged with three counts of second degree murder.  He was on the run for two days before the police found him in a mobile home park a few blocks from the scene of the first murders.  The six children were taken to a safe house at an undisclosed location until the man was found.  The local community is rallying around the family and has set up donations to help.  If you would like more information about the family, please click here.


  1. WHEW.
    Glad you and yours are okay and I really appreciate what you wrote about teachers, both as a teacher and a mother.
    Sounds like Ben is doing great - thanks to you and his teachers...and him!

    1. Thanks, FSM. It was a little scary there for awhile, but luckily everyone remained calm and handled the situation as true professionals. So sad for the families affected by the tragedy though...

  2. I, too, am grateful for the love and compassion teachers give on a daily basis. I am so thrilled that Ben is in such good hands, at home and at school.

    1. Yes, my mind is at ease every day knowing that he is in the best hands. Even when the event was happening, I kept saying to myself, "At least he is with Mrs. H." I have the highest respect for teachers and the work that they do every day. I see it firsthand, as you said, both as a colleague and as a mom.

  3. I must admit I cried reading your post. I, too, find the pain unbearable when such tragedies occur. My son has had to sit through one lockdown when he was in Pre-K because of a criminal on the loose. This was before we received his diagnosis of SPD but was told that all students did well. I'm glad that you and everyone in your community (aside from the victims and the family of the victims) are safe. And thank you for being the wonderful teacher that you are.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Erin. I'm glad to hear that you son did well on his lockdown experience. I had so many of my friends who know Ben ask how he did during the lockdown that I thought I'd write a post about it. It's a scary time for sure.


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