Run a quick search on “school locked down” and it seems that this has become a commonplace occurrence lately. Sometimes the lockdowns make sense: a violent crime is committed nearby and the perpetrator is at large. Someone makes a threat. Someone reports seeing a student with a possible firearm. Some of those reports turn out to be hoaxes. That part is nothing new; when I was in junior high school in the 1970s, we were evacuated several times for bomb threats. We would stand around in the parking lot or on the playing field while police searched the school, then file back to class while making jokes about someone just wanting to get out of a test. We knew the odds of the threat being real were near zero, but administrators can’t take the chance when faced with a specific threat like that.
I don’t fault schools for following lockdown procedures in the face of possible violent threats, but I am troubled by our overweening sense of protectiveness these days. It shows on playgrounds, where monkey bars are removed lest a child fall. It shows in our reluctance to let kids play outside or bike to a friend’s house unsupervised, lest a predator snatch them. It shows in the way we are turning schools into virtual fortresses… or prisons.
And it shows in panicked administrators without a lick of common sense or sense of proportionality, who lock down entire schools for a known “threat” like… a thermometer. The old-fashioned glass kind, with mercury in it. The kind that your parents probably stuck in your mouth when you were feverish, and neither they nor you worried about it. But at a school in Florida, a student brought in just such a thermometer as part of an assignment to show examples of elements from the Periodic Table… and the school was placed in lockdown, and a hazmat team called in to deal with this “threat.” Think about that: the administration called a hazmat team to deal with an ordinary household item that is still manufactured and sold today (never needs batteries!). Not to mention that every fluorescent light bulb in the building is actually a worse mercury-exposure hazard, if it breaks. So how about this instead: “Timmy, I’m a little uncomfortable with this thermometer because it could break and spill the mercury. I’m going to keep it for now and you take it home at the end of the day.” Hey, the kid managed to get it there without breaking it – but if we’re still too scared to hand it back to him, there is also this: “… and I’m going to ask your parent to come pick it up.” Ta-da! Threat eliminated. No hazmat team. No disruption of classes or waste of taxpayer dollars or diversion of first responders to a place where they are patently not needed.
The six-hour lockdown of a Long Island school over a 911 call about a student with a gun is less cut-and dry. SWAT teams, bomb squads, and canine units all got in on the action. Slight problem: according to the New York Daily News, “Nassau County Police found a toy lime green and yellow ‘Nerf’ gun in a student locker that fit the description of the original call.” Please, have a look at the Daily News story and photos. Students and parents were traumatized not by a stupid lime-green Nerf gun, but by the heavy-handed response. I’m not sure who bears the greatest responsibility for this particular debacle – the 911 caller? I can’t really blame the 911 dispatcher or the police, because actually… I am sorry to report… Ruger, Walther and Glock actually do make… lime-green guns. Real ones. Still, I have to ask: do these two images look that much alike? Would you really mistake one for the other?
Then there is this: when confronted with a glimpse of some kind of lime-green plastic something sticking out of a backpack, do you automatically think “toy” or “gun?” If you automatically think “gun,” that’s a sign that our culture has become waaay too steeped in blind fear. Lime-green weapons (and other colors) do exist, but they are not exactly common.
We need to do better than this. This kind of over-reaction is harmful, and contributes to that sense of blind fear, which in turn promotes more over-reaction. We need to just stop. Take a breath. Be more deliberate and controlled, and less panicked. Use our sense of reason, if we have any left at this point. We all need to open our eyes so we can report real threats before they cause harm; this was the failure in the Sandy Hook case, and at Columbine. But we also all need to open our eyes wide enough to not report or act on non-threats, and avoid the kind of damaging havoc that yields… nothing. Just more fear.
UPDATE: Here’s another one, 29 January in the Bronx: Cops lock down school after a 12-year-old is overheard talking to a classmate about his TOY Nerf gun. Parents rush to the school in a frenzy. One is quoted in the New York Post: “The worst part is just not knowing anything or getting any answers. My husband, Ed, was running out in the park looking for our daughter. It’s nerve racking. There are police officers here with assault rifles and there are helicopters flying around. It’s really scary out here.” Once again, havoc and panic for nothing.
Cover photo credit: Craig Warga / New York Daily News