The Best Possible Active Shooter Situation
A text lit up my phone. My children’s school was going into lockdown due to an active shooter “in the area.”
My gut clenched, my heart sank. They were in the K–8 school across the street from me. I was teaching in a 7–12 school. Why weren’t we locking down? Were my babies being taken care of? My oldest was out at lunch, on campus with me. Outside. With a shooter on the loose.
In the five seconds it took me to process this, the lockdown announcement came. We were locking down, too.
My classroom was the largest on the ground floor, the easiest place to put kids. 200 of them were out at lunch, running across soccer field and throwing Cheetos at their friends.
With an active shooter “in the area.” Whatever the hell that meant.
Kids started pouring into my classroom, panicky and sweaty, their lunches crumpled and clutched to their chests, gathered up in a hurry. We emptied practice rooms, throwing percussion equipment out so kids could get in.
One student started drawing blinds shut, darkening the room.
Another flipped the posters so they blocked the tiny windows in the doors, the windows that are supposed to remain uncovered at all times, lest a teacher be accused of abusing kids behind closed doors.
Another double-checked the locks on the crash bars in the double doors, another checked the door out of my office, the door that led to a hallway.
Every one of these tasks was precious seconds, time ticking by. But these kids had trained for this their entire lives. The oldest kids in that room were born four years after Columbine. They don’t know anything other than life with active shooter drills, they don’t know what it’s like to go to school and not worry about this.
The halls emptied, the classroom filled, the lights went out.
I had to take attendance. Every one of these kids was “out of place” since they had been at lunch and were not where they were “supposed” to be at that time.
“What’s your name?”
“Your name. I need a list.”
“Miss, you know me.”
I knew every one of these kids, they had all been in my classroom, since music classes are required of all of them.
But they were in my classroom at the wrong time, in the wrong way. Out of context, in a panic, I couldn’t remember anyone’s name. I couldn’t remember my own, I don’t think.
“Please. It’ll go faster if I don’t have to look up.”
A half-truth that didn’t disclose the chaos in my own head. I was the adult, the only adult, in a room of dozens and dozens of teenagers.
It worked. The boy closest to me, sitting on the floor near my left foot said his name quietly, and the boy next to him said his automatically. They fell into a roll-call pattern without any further prompting.
I held my phone in my hand, carefully typing in names with trembling fingers, cursing out loud every time autocorrect kicked in, slowing me down, making the legal record of these kids’ whereabouts unreadable.
If they die here, if I die here, this list needs to be correct. It could be the only way their parents will know what happens to them, where they were.
Their voices wobbled, some of them audibly cracking as they broke into tears. They said their names carefully, full names, not nicknames. They knew this what this list was.
A hundred and four names.
A hundred and four scared junior high kids who had been at lunch, who had been told to get inside, don’t ask questions, just go.
My son wasn’t among them. I didn’t know which of the smaller classrooms he had made it into. Technically, I didn’t know that he had made it into a classroom at all. Still no texts or alerts from across the street, where the younger two were also cowering in a dark classroom.
Did they have someone’s hand to hold? We were a no-PDA (including hand-holding) campus, but how could I deny them this small comfort? I watched as kids slipped their fingers into each other’s, silently squeezing. I watched as arms went around shoulders, heads drooped onto nearby shoulders, as they collapsed into each other.
My younger kids didn’t have cell phones. I had no way of hearing from them, of knowing they were safe. My oldest finally texted me: I’m in the PE room. He was across the hall, ten feet away from me, separated by two locked doors and an empty linoleum hallway plastered with art projects and fliers for the end-of-semester concerts.
He was as safe as I was, whatever that was worth.
Lockdown protocol said we weren’t supposed to be on our phones. Talking could be heard through walls, it might tip off a shooter as to where you were hiding. Cell phone usage might jam up signal in the area, making it difficult for rescue teams to communicate. But worst of all (yes, the district policy considered this the “worst of all”), it might get out on social media and create a scandal.
I watched as kids texted their parents, constantly reassuring them that they were safe, that we were safe. They said I love you. They said it a lot. How could I deny them that? I ached to hear it from my boys across the street, but they had no way to get the message out.
A door handle jiggled, the door shook in its frame. Whimpers rolled through the room and I felt everyone clutch closer. They shrank into corners and made themselves small. The kid who had the lead in the spring play, who couldn’t be kept out of the spotlight for all the money in the world, shrank and cowered. The athletes, all bravado and sweat and swagger any other day of the year, huddled with their friends. Maybe not even friends, maybe just the warm body at their side, the person who happened to be there as they’d been herded inside without rhyme or reason.
Keys in the door, it swung open and the pressure in the room whooshed out. It was the drama teacher, bringing in the lunches that had been left outside. His wife was the principal, and he’d been to her office already. The shooter was a parent of one of our students, with a younger sibling enrolled across the street. A “domestic disturbance” at home had escalated and the police had ordered the lockdowns as a precaution.
Someone’s father had a gun. Was someone’s mother dead already? Would the police shoot this father to stop him from shooting kids? In my experience, police officers tended to side with dads in violent situations. I’d called the cops on a father beating his son in the parking lot outside my classroom. I’d been reprimanded for it; it was private family business, the principal knew the family, it was fine. The cops had arrived, bumped fists with the man, and stood around for a long time after the child slinked into my classroom, hair mussed and eyes wet from crying. The bruises would have been on his torso, covered by the uniform he wore.
Domestic disturbances are often treated as private matters. My husband is an attorney, and has worked in family law for years. At this time, he was working at a criminal defense firm. He saw first-hand how cops and judges tended to see angry fathers as sympathetic figures, how domestic disturbances went undocumented, and how often homicide reports included previous incident reports with the words, “said I did not want to come back here — would arrest them both” written in the cop’s all-caps ballpoint pen handwriting.
The nature of the shooter didn’t make anyone relax.
I watched as terrified eyes turned to a different kind of worry, as kids turned to look at one another, assessing who lived close enough, who had parents who might be home, fighting, during the day. Whose family had been torn apart already? Who would become the epicenter of this scandal in the coming hours, days?
The bell rang.
Lunch was over.
No one moved.
We continued to sit in the silence, stewing over the lack of updates, our eyes locked on our glowing screens, the brightness dimmed as low as it would go, no one even listening to headphones, every ear straining to hear anything outside. A door closing, footsteps, shots.
A little over an hour later, the lockdown was released. I got the notice from across the street first. Lockdown lifted. Classes resuming their normal schedule.
No details about who was safe or how to find out.
Our alert came less than a minute later, the announcement sounding through the school’s PA system almost simultaneously with the text alert. Lockdown lifted. There was a code word, of course, something that let teachers know that the lockdown really was over, that it really was safe to stand up, to put the furniture back where it belonged, to turn the lights on.
To resume classes and a normal schedule.
It was the best possible scenario. No one had been hurt. The shooter — someone’s father — had never set foot on our campus. I wouldn’t find out for two more hours that he never set foot on the campus across the street, either. We wouldn’t find out for several hours more that he hadn’t killed anyone, hadn’t even shot anyone. The lockdowns had been truly precautionary. The following week, the children of the family quietly withdrew their enrollment, changed schools. I think about them often, wondering if they found peace or if they still live in chaos under the threat of violence. If their new schools have ever locked down, if the “best case scenario” continues to play out for them.
Students looked around in a daze, reminding me of kids who wake up from naps in the car and can’t figure out where they are or where they are supposed to be.
They looked at the shambles around them. Drums that had been thrown out of the way so they could hide. Chairs askew as they’d been knocked out of place by a hundred scared teenagers. The lights still dimmed, the music that normally blared from a speaker between classes silenced. My classroom was a mockery of itself. A mess that never would have been permitted under any other circumstances. Damage inflicted that I never would have allowed otherwise.
I looked at the clock as I heard the hallways coming alive with shuffled footsteps, slamming doors, murmured voices.
“It’s halfway through third period.”
We were on a block schedule, only four periods in a day. They had to get through about a half hour of third period, then traverse those halls and finish another 90-minute class before they could go home. As soon as I said the words, they all seemed to clear their heads.
They knew what to do, where to go.
“It’s halfway through third period. Go to class.”