Thursday, January 24, 2013

Lockdown at the Elementary School

On Wednesdays, my first-grader gets out of school at 1:05. Yesterday, I showed up at the school around 1:00 and was puzzled to see several police cars, lights flashing, parked around school grounds. I was just in time to overhear an announcement on the loudspeaker, "Students who usually walk home will be permitted to walk home as usual," or something to that effect. "Why wouldn't they be?" I said to myself. Obviously, something was Not Right at the school, but I had no idea what was going on.

I loitered by the front gate for a few minutes with my younger sons in the double stroller, trying to eavesdrop on what other parents were saying while we waited for them to open the gates and let us in. Normally, they open the gates a minute or two before the bell rings, and we can scatter off in all directions to go to our kids' classrooms and meet them there. A picture began to form, that there was a lockdown going on that was just being lifted as school was ending. A lockdown? Why?

I was more confused than upset, trying to piece together information from whatever I could overhear. Why hadn't anyone told me what was going on? If there was some danger at the school, shouldn't they have called the parents to let us know what was happening, sent an email, something? Did I need to do anything different or special in light of this development? Why was there a lockdown to begin with? How nervous did I need to be?

Finally, the principal came out through the front gate and told us that they were not going to be opening the gates. Instead, the children who usually came to the front gate on their own would be released one-by-one to their parents. If our child did not normally meet us at the front gate, we were to go to the back gate to pick them up. The back gate is the typical pick-up site where students are escorted to meet their parents if the parent doesn't come to their classroom.

Armed with these instructions, I plodded with my double stroller to the back gate, where my son was already waiting for me. It wasn't unusual, in and of itself, for him to meet me at the back gate - I have to catch him there if I don't make it to the school in time to meet him at his classroom - and he didn't seem agitated or frightened.

"Did you have a lockdown today?" I asked, hoping someone, even if it was my six-year-old, could finally tell me what was going on.

"Yeah. It was the longest lockdown ever!" he said. I would have laughed at the tone if I hadn't been so bewildered and on the verge of worry. "It was like two hours!"

"Two hours?" I said. "Wow."

"Yeah. Well, we were under our desks for like 20 minutes, and then they said we could move around the classroom, but we couldn't go between the buildings," he said.

I wondered if he was exaggerating the time. To him, the lockdown was little more than a boring inconvenience, a disruption to the usual school day, and not something to be worried about.

"And then," he continued, "they made an announcement that you could go back to your classroom if you weren't with your class."

"So some kids got caught in different rooms?" I asked.

"Yeah. You're supposed to go to the nearest classroom if you're outside. But everyone was in our class. It must have been a practice lockdown, not a real one, because they wouldn't have let us move around the classrooms if it was a real one!"

Ah. He didn't know it was a real one. The presence of police, the nervousness of staff and other parents, the change in pick-up rules all spoke to the reality of the situation, but my innocent son was able to retain his innocence still. He thought it was practice.

While waiting for the walk signal on the corner, another mother asked my son if he was scared. "He says it was just practice," I said, making eye contact and emphasizing that so she wouldn't say otherwise. There was no reason to scare him, since everything had apparently worked out fine.

"Oh, just practice. That's good that you're not scared," she said, understanding.

"I don't even know what happened," I said over my kids' heads.

"Oh, you don't know? They got a phone threat!" she said quietly.



When we got home, I had a recorded message from the school, time-stamped 1:15 p.m., on my home phone, explaining that the school had received a phone call around noon from an unidentified caller saying that something spectacular was going to happen in the next five or 10 minutes near the school. No one knew what it meant, so to be safe they went on lockdown and called the police. Nothing happened, apparently, and they didn't have further information, so they lifted the lockdown and sent the kids home at the usual time.

I was bothered by not having any idea what had happened until it was over. Now I'm worried that being so out of the loop means that if something did happen, I wouldn't have a clue! I think I was just unlucky to be near the end of the automated phone call list, so I didn't get the call until after school let out, but this suggests to me that we need a faster way to get the message out. Perhaps classroom phone trees?

When I picked up my son today from school, another parent told me that they finally had the full story. It seems it was a parent who had called to tell the school that a blimp was going to fly overhead, and he thought the kids might like to see it. Unfortunately, he got cut off before he could finish, and his wording caused school officials to think it was a threat.

The mother who told me this gave me her phone number and said that if she ever hears anything, she'll be sure to call me. I thanked her. It's scary to be out of the loop like that. I often wonder why everyone seems to know about things but me, and it's not a position I want to be in anymore.

On the one hand, I'm pleased with the school officials' quick response to a perceived threat, and that the students were responsive and handled the lockdown with aplomb. My son's teacher said the kids were fantastic, followed directions, and knew what to do.

On the other hand, it's pretty terrifying to show up at your child's school and see it surrounded by police cars. Ignorance, in this case, was not bliss.

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