American Schools Endanger Children

College students evacuate Potomac Hall, a dorm...

College students evacuate Potomac Hall, a dormitory at James Madison University, during a fire drill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems the paranoia surrounding the American school system has reached new heights. In preparation of the highly unlikely possibility of a school shooter, Chicago high school Cary Grove trains their students on appropriate response by holding lockdown drills. Not unreasonable, you might say, best to be prepared. I might even agree with you. Until, that is, it is revealed that, as part of their latest drill, the students are to be subjected to the sound of real gunfire when blanks are fired in the hallway while they cower in their classrooms.

The (so-called) thinking behind this scenario is that, by being exposed to the sound of gunfire, students will be better prepared to respond in a real crisis. Never mind the fear that may be caused by the drill itself. Not to worry, a counsellor will be on hand to deal with any trauma. More important, in my view is the danger posed by such a drill.

I have never been to America, but I have seen plenty of fire drills in Australian schools and they always proceed in the same manner. First, the bell rings. Then the teacher and students lose precious minutes finishing up the part of the lesson they are on because it is only a drill. Finally teacher and students gather their things and dawdle down to their designated meeting point. In the case of a surprise drill, precious seconds are lost as people try to decide if it is a drill, or if it is the real thing. These drills happen on such a regular basis that people have become blasé about them. Still, I can rest assured that, in the case of a real emergency, the smell of smoke will cause people to react with the urgency required by the situation.

It would seem that lock-down drills are to be practised as regularly in the States as fire drills are here in Australia. I believe that, by using real gunfire in these drills, children are being de-sensitized to the sound of guns in their schools. It then becomes possible that, in the case of a real emergency, lives will be put at risk as students and teachers try to figure out if this is a real situation, or just another drill. While their hearts may be in the right place, conducting their drills in this manner has the potential to increase casualties, rather than decreasing them.

At least in this case, the school is trying to do the right thing, misguided though they are. This next school, however, is guilty of sheer negligence. A drill, conducted on January 18 at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School involved a drill where an intruder pulled a fire alarm in order to lure students into the hallways where they can be shot. According to a Fargo school district spokesperson, students and staff are trained not to leave the classroom when they hear the fire alarm unless they smell smoke. Instead, they are to barricade the doors using every desk in the classroom.

Do you spot the problems here? Firstly, of all the school shootings that have happened in the United States, the scenario that appears to have this school district in such a panic has only happened once. Yes, you read right. Once. In 1998. That’s fourteen years ago. Secondly, by the time a fire reaches the stage when you can actually smell the smoke, it is getting near to too late. You need to be getting out of the building NOW. That is why we install the early warning systems called – you guessed it – fire alarms.

Moreover, since these schools seem determined to focus on worst case scenarios, let us examine this horrible hypothetical. School is puttering along as usual. The teacher is droning on. Half the students are snoozing in their seats, while the rest diligently note everything the teacher says. Suddenly, the fire alarm sounds. There is a moment of confusion. Is this a drill or the real thing? The teacher pops his (or her) head out the door. The corridors are eerily silent. He takes a sniff. He cannot smell any smoke. Deciding to follow the procedure that has been drilled into them, he and his students quickly move the desks to form a barricade behind he door.

The frightened class waits in silence, hoping that this is a drill but fearing it is not. Their ears strain, trying to pick up the sound of gunfire in the silence. After some time, one student claims to be able to smell smoke. The others cannot smell it and tell her it is her imagination. By the time enough smoke creeps under the door to convince the rest of the class, the corridor outside is filled with smoke and the fire is out of control. Frantically, the class begins dismantling the barricade, coughing and choking on the smoke that is quickly filling the room. By the time they can get to the door, most have succumbed to heat and smoke. The lucky few who escape report passing firefighters desperately trying to hack their way through barricades to reach classrooms full of dead and dying children. The majority of the school escapes, but the death toll is higher than any school shooting in the history of America.

Does this scenario seem far-fetched to you? Is it really any more fantastic than the intruder scenario above? The danger of focusing on worst case scenarios, as opposed to best-case scenarios, is that we often wind up putting our children in far more danger than that from which we are trying to protect them. I am not saying that fire drills, or even lock-down drills should not be a part of our school or work lives. I am merely saying that we should approach these situations with perspective and common sense.

Allowing our panic to cloud our reason destroys our peace of mind and puts our lives and those of our children at risk.

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3 replies

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