It was 9:15 am on a Tuesday, right in the middle of third period. The students in my eighth-grade English class were working on projects, poster paper and crayons scattered across the floor.
Suddenly, the loudspeaker crackled, and our principal’s voice was heard throughout the school.
“Attention, all students, faculty, and staff,” she said, loudly but calmly. “There is an active shooter in the Challenger wing of the building.” Then the briefest of silences, followed by a semi-orderly stampede.
My students knew what to do. My entire class made a beeline for the door, speed-walking down the hall toward the exit and then out onto the field at the base of the stairs. They knew they weren’t supposed to run, but some of them couldn’t help themselves. Once outside, they formed lines with their classmates, awaiting their teachers’ instructions.
I trailed behind them with a few other teachers, ready to locate the kids who would inevitably take this drill as an opportunity to goof off. After lining up my class outside, we shuffled back into the building, preparing for round two. There were at least three rounds for each drill, in order to cover several different scenarios, allowing students to experience what to do in each. Each round included a shooter in different areas of the building, which would prompt students to respond by either exiting the building or preparing to barricade and “counter,” should the shooter enter the classroom.
On the outside, I appeared calm — I’ve done this drill at least five times before. But in truth, I could barely hold it together. These drills touched on my deepest fear about a horrific school shooting: As a teacher, I was expected to protect my students with my own life. I worried that if such a moment came, however brave I wanted to be, I simply wouldn’t be able to do that.
But let’s pause to think about how dystopian this is: Ordinary men and women, drawn to teaching by their love of children and learning, have to think about scenarios that might typically haunt the dreams of soldiers in wartime. It’s certainly not what one would expect when they pursue their degree in education — and, contrary to what some might say today, it’s not what teachers signed up for.
I find myself thinking about this drill day after every mass shooting — which is to say, far too often. The Parkland, Florida, school shooting last week was one of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern US history and produced at least 17 dead bodies. There will continue to be more.
And so I go back to that Tuesday, time and again.
What we teach students to do when there’s an active shooter in the building
Our school district had moved beyond the “lockdown” and shelter-in-place drills that were once the norm. We’d implemented the increasingly popular “ALICE Training” earlier that year — a strategy for handling school shootings that compels both students and teachers to be active participants in their survival.
The program posits that if an active shooter situation were to occur, everyone in the school should make the best decisions possible to ensure the maximum number of lives saved. No more passive waiting. Each letter of the word ALICE stands for different tactical approach that could be useful in different scenarios: alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate.
As a kid in the ‘90s, I grew up with the typical shelter-in-place drill. I remember hiding under desks in the dark, teachers locking the doors and sitting with us. When ALICE was brought to our school, the program’s representatives told us that those strategies turned teachers and students into sitting ducks.
They offered an analogy to drive home the point: “If there was a fire in one end of the building and you were located in the other, what would you do?” Clearly, the answer was: Get the hell out. In a fire drill, students had marked exits that would be the safest to use in an emergency. The same thing, then, should be applied to any sort of dangerous situation — read the situation and shape your response based on what’s unfolding.
And so our school began ALICE drills: We role-played scenarios in which a gunman had broken into our building. If a shooter entered the classroom, students were instructed to throw anything they could at them: books, desks, chairs, anything. We practiced this by tossing empty water bottles at a faculty member “pretending” to be the gunman. The logic? If the shooter was already in the classroom, all bets were off.
The order was to do anything possible to survive, even if that meant breaking ankles while jumping from my classroom’s second-story window. No one, of course, thought the shooter would be deterred by airborne textbooks. But maybe he’d be distracted long enough for a few students to escape. Maybe while he ducked, a teacher might tackle him, causing his gun to drop. (In that instance, students were instructed to put an empty garbage can on top of the weapon — not to touch it themselves.)
I’d gone through several ALICE drills before that Tuesday, but for some reason, this particular day’s events are the ones that haunt me. After we all returned to the classroom to wait for the second drill to begin, my students no longer could focus. Some were gleeful over a chance to escape school work. Others were as anxious as I was, their eyes flicking to the loudspeaker, awaiting our principal’s next command.
“Where would we go?” one girl eventually asked me. “Like, if this were real. We wouldn’t just go to the field. So — where would we go?”
The classroom suddenly got quiet.
“Anywhere,” I found myself saying. “Market Basket,” I added, naming the grocery store down the street. “Starbucks. The Dollar Tree. You’d go there and call for help.” If they lived close enough, they should aim for home. Or a friend’s house. But as far away from the school as possible.
That exchange opened the door to a slew of other questions. Why do we need to use the stairs instead of jumping out the window? How do we work the teacher phone if we need to dial 911? Could we use our cellphones to text our parents?
I answered all of the questions as patiently as I could. There was another moment of quiet, and then: “What if you got shot? Like, protecting us? What would we do?”
This was the question I dreaded — the question I couldn’t answer.
Because I doubted that I could do that very thing. I wasn’t sure if I could be the teacher who locked all her children in a closet and essentially offered herself instead — like Victoria Leigh Soto, who died during the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. I didn’t know if I could be the teacher who threw herself in the way of bullets, like assistant football coach Aaron Feis, who, according to some accounts, protected his students when he was killed during the recent Parkland, Florida, massacre.
I applaud those people who responded coolly to the most horrifying situations imaginable and made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their students, but at the same time, such superhuman bravery simply cannot be a routine expectation of educators. And yet it feels as though today it’s sneaked into the job description — an awful addendum in invisible ink.
It’s horrific that teachers in our country are the first line of defense against shooters
The ALICE Program does not suggest that teachers should protect students with their own lives, and the experts never made these demands of us during our training. The program is designed to empower all individuals within a school environment to make smart choices that differ from circumstance to circumstance.
However, given the prevalence of school shootings, and the fact that there are educators who have made such sacrifices, it’s inevitable that teachers feel the pressure to be heroes if a gunman suddenly appears. There have been parents, for example, at district-wide meetings who have proposed that teachers carry weapons themselves, arguing that it’s the job of an educator to fight for their children’s survival.
Don’t get me wrong. I would do everything I possibly could do to protect my students, and I would never put a student in harm’s way to save myself. But I also doubt that I’m the type of person who willfully throws herself in the path of bullets. And along with this realization came a huge wave of guilt.
On the heels of that guilt, however, came another feeling — one more like anger. Why should any teacher be forced to choose between saving students’ lives or coming home alive to their own families? Why do we live in a society where educators need to be trained in how to respond to a psychotic gunman?
School shootings are preventable. The majority of Americans favor stronger gun laws. It’s the politicians who are the problem — the ones who receive millions of dollars from the National Rifle Association and can therefore, time and again, only muster “thoughts and prayers” instead of action and change.
All of this — the guilt, the anger, the frustration — circled through my mind after my eighth-grade student asked that question. What if you got shot while protecting us? I never answered her. Instead, the loudspeaker crackled, and our principal’s voice cut through the air:
“Attention, all students, faculty, and staff,” she said. “There is an active shooter in the Explorer wing of the building. This is just a drill.”
De Elizabeth is a writer and editor, currently working as the weekend editor for Teen Vogue. Her writing can also be found in Romper, Glamour, Allure, and HelloGiggles. Previously, she held a career in English and theater education and worked as a director/choreographer for middle and high schools in the New England area.