We all remember fire drills from our own school days — and many "false alarms" caused by mischievous students who would pull the alarm to get out of a test. While the bells were loud and the evacuations were likely a bit chaotic, most of us probably never gave these drills a second thought. But fast-forward to your child's school emergency drills and it's a whole new ballgame.
Not just fires anymore
Not only are school personnel practicing the evacuation of students in case of fire, but depending on which part of the country you live in, earthquake or tornado drills are also part of the routine. After the shooting tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999, most school districts implemented lockdown drills and evacuation plans in case of a situation involving an armed intruder. Each type of drill requires staff and students to follow a procedure that is different from simply lining up and exiting the buildings.
For many students, a drill is just a chance to goof off, get out of a little math work and spend a few minutes outside. But for others, the anxiety of a drill can be so intense that they lose focus for the remainder of the day — and bring their worries back to school with them the following day. While classroom staff may take this into account with special-education students, the reality is that many students who may seem "fine" on the outside are panicking inside.
Lockdown drills are intense
"Ever since we added the lockdown drills to our school's routine, I have noticed an increase in the level of anxiety during the drills," shares Teresa, a mother of two and an elementary school aide. "In a lockdown drill, we shut the blinds, turn off the lights, hide under tables and desks and stay silent. The only method of communication is through email with the front office. From the moment they announce the drill, you can feel the tension multiply," she adds.
Parents who have been on campus when a lockdown drill was called have a little window into how scary an actual emergency situation would be for their little ones.
"We had several moms in tears after the last drill," Teresa adds. "Seeing firsthand how these tiny people are hiding under desks with not much to protect them really affected the moms."
Taking it a bit too far?
When does a drill become more than just a safety lesson? Some school districts have taken the added step of adding an "active shooter" in the form of a staff member — without warning students ahead of time. Parents have mixed reactions to the idea of practicing lockdown drills with a realistic twist. Administrators at Eastern Wayne Middle School in North Carolina assigned a staff member to dress up as a fake gunman — complete with toy pistol and ski mask — and storm the campus, entering classrooms. In a letter sent home to parents, school staff referred to the incident as an "enrichment lesson" for the sixth-grade students who were learning about being observant of their surroundings. While some of the students apparently knew immediately it was a "fake" gunman, the stunt didn't go over very well with parents.
When the anxiety is too much
Jill — who blogs at Yeah. Good Times. — is a mother of two, and her oldest child is autistic. She wrote about her experiences with drills recently.
"It is a well-known fact that [my son] is not a fan of the fire drill," she said. "Our school's principal knows that she needs to inform me the minute one is scheduled. Pretty much every single person who works at our school is aware of [my son] and his issues with the fire drill," she added.
They have even included a reference to this drill-induced anxiety in her son's Individualized Education Program.
One day, as Jill arrived on campus a bit early to pick up her son, there was an evacuation drill in progress — one that she had not been informed about. While the staff members kept saying how well her son was doing, she knew that on the inside, he was a mess.
"I understand my purpose now is to educate the staff at the school, and the staff at his school next year, and of course that is what I will do," Jill said. "But my kids are always my first priority and my mom brain keeps getting stuck on 'what if I hadn't been there?' I talked him through the experience, we found out what happened (somebody microwaved some lasagna for too long and it set off the alarms) and now he's doing OK. But if I hadn't been there, he would have been on his own, full of anxiety and surrounded by adults who just don't get it. And that's even more unacceptable."
How to help
There are some things you as a parent can do to help your child deal with school drills.
- Find out from school staff what kinds of drills your child can expect and how often she can expect them.
- During quiet time at home, talk to your kids about the various drills they may encounter at school.
- Role-play the parts of student and teacher (swap roles, too) to show your child exactly how it might sound and feel to be involved in a drill.
- Reassure your child that while these drills may feel scary, the teachers are just helping him learn how to think and react in an emergency, which is unlikely to happen.
- If your child has anxiety about drills, speak to her teacher about it so the teacher can be aware and help your child.
Unfortunately, school emergency drills will be a way of life from now on. The most important thing to remember is that you know your child better than anyone else. You can do more to ease her anxiety if you plan ahead and talk about school drills often.
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