Lockdowns The Norm For Schools With Frequent Threats

Even before the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., schools have long tried to figure out how to prepare and respond in the event of a shooter on campus. Youth Radio reporter Robyn Gee reports from the Bay Area on what lockdowns mean, and what they feel like to kids.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Long before the recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, school administrators and teachers across the country had been thinking hard about how to respond to danger on campus. Lockdowns are one technique that school safety experts say have become more common since the Columbine shooting, in 1999. Robyn Gee spent two years as a teacher in San Francisco before becoming a reporter for Youth Radio. We asked her to look into how lockdowns are being used in the Bay Area.

ROBYN GEE, BYLINE: I never did lockdown drills with my eighth-grade students but now, lockdowns are becoming standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM CHATTER, CHILD LAUGHING)

GEE: Julia Gelormino has a game she plays with her first-graders. She calls it hide-and-seek. It starts with an announcement on the P.A. that Dr. Lock is in the building.

JULIA GELORMINO: That's our special code. We need to make sure your eyes are on Miss G., and you're looking to her for directions.

GEE: Next, all 21 kids - in their uniforms - head to the bathroom and one by one, they line up and squish inside the small room.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM CHATTER)

GELORMINO: There is no talking. There is no talking.

GEE: On her cue...

GELORMINO: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

GEE: All her students crouch down on the floor and become silent - well, almost all of them.

GELORMINO: So right now, I don't want to scare you but Lily(ph), if somebody was trying to harm us and you were making that much sound, guess where they're going to go first? Here. So right now, you aren't helping us to be safe.

GEE: These kids are used to drills. They're used to real lockdowns, too. Gelormino says she never knows the reasons until afterwards. It could be a robbery in the neighborhood, or something more serious. Since the shooting in Newtown, the lockdowns have meant some really hard conversations with her first-graders.

GELORMINO: How do we stay safe when someone else is trying to harm us? And they started talking about how, you know, we kind of play our game of like, hide-and-seek. And ... (crying) one of my kids asked what would happen if they shot through the door. And so she had, obviously, watched the things on the news.

GEE: It's the end of the day now, and the tension of the school day fills this teacher's classroom. On average, at least three schools are shut down in Oakland every week. Neighboring cities, like Berkeley and San Jose, also use lockdowns; sometimes, even for preschoolers. Often, teachers, parents and students are unaware of the severity of the situation. Some parents receive a text when a lockdown is in progress. Other parents get the news through a note in their kid's backpack, the next day. Troy Flint, of the Oakland Unified School District, says parents are demanding even more security.

TROY FLINT: I've received many unsolicited emails from parents, which were also sent to the superintendent and board members, asking for increased police presence.

GEE: But how does that feel to a 6-and-a-half-year old? I asked Gustavo Hernandez about the drills in his elementary school.

GUSTAVO HERNANDEZ: I feel kind of - like, scared.

GEE: Can you tell me why?

GUSTAVO: Because if we forgot like, to close everything, the strangers could get us.

GEE: But Hernandez says he understands they need to practice.

GUSTAVO: You need to like, lose your fear.

GEE: How do you lose your fear?

GUSTAVO: Like, if you want to lose your fear, you could do this: (takes deep breath).

GEE: Good advice for anyone trying to stay calm in a classroom. For NPR News, I'm Robyn Gee.

CORNISH: That story was produced by Youth Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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