Violent Truth Is Much Scarier Than Simulation

An active shooter training video produced in southern California leaves one teacher feeling offended and traumatized. 

I have never been in a situation like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I have, however, been a teacher in one of the most violent parts of Oakland, Calif. We’ve been through—and guided elementary school students through—many violent situations at school. Since the shooting in Newtown, Conn., I’ve been following the news coverage. I’ve tried to stay out of the debates about gun control, school safety and arming teachers because I have far too much to say, and too many feelings.

My school has at least one lockdown a year. Children are herded into classrooms, window blinds are pulled and doors are locked. We sit huddled on the floor to avoid whatever violence is going on outside. 

After watching a recent active shooter drill simulation with students screaming and running and bloodied bodies dropping to the ground, I felt nauseated, offended and traumatized. Law enforcement officers set it up at a school with student actors in Southern California State officials propose using the video across the state as training.

I hope they decide against it. This video manages to both propagate terror and make us feel like we are doing something. The people “doing something,” however, are disconnected from the classroom and creating a false sense of security at the expense of the people who are most frightened. It builds on the culture of fear that grows every time we hear news of a school shooting, but the safety exercise does nothing to help students and teachers know what to do and how to stay safe in such a situation.

After watching the video, I thought about the violent episodes and lockdowns my school has experienced for different reasons. Sometimes it was a police pursuit, a nearby murder or a custody battle involving one parent arriving at school with a gun. What they all had in common were terrified children. Inside, teachers tried to protect students without having information about the situation, fearing one of our students might be connected to the violence outside. We made impossible judgments about whether it was safer to search for a child who had gone to the bathroom or lock ourselves in with the rest of the students and hope the stray student found safety and a different hiding place. We had to try to stay quiet while kids were asking to pray, to go home or to the bathroom, or if they could call home to make sure their parents hadn’t been shot.

The simulated video exercise we watched attempts to offer a one-size-fits-all response, but it only creates a false sense of security. School shootings take many forms. This simulation didn’t teach me how to secure my classroom, protect my students or help them heal from the trauma caused by violence in our neighborhood school.

There are many ways children are traumatized by violence. We don’t need a simulated drill to add to that trauma. Some of my students had seen family members shot in the face, witnessed fathers and friends shot mistakenly or grieved the violent deaths of neighbors. The coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting triggered me, and I haven’t seen many of the things that my students have.

When I hear people talking about arming teachers, I am astounded. The militarization of schools seems to move us towards a more uncontrollably violent education environment. Gun control might help. Mental health support would help both victims and potential perpetrators of violence as well as the people around them who are traumatized. 

Our energy and discussion should be focused on communications systems and the need of children to contact their beloved adults at home when violence comes into the school. Video simulated “training” turns the reality of school violence into a movie and will only traumatize people further. It’s not about running and screaming, it’s about quiet terror, about being isolated with children you know you would die to protect.

Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.

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