Numerous school lockdowns are traumatizing kids
Locked behind their green classroom door, MaKenzie Woody and 25 other first-graders huddled in the darkness. She sat on the vinyl tile floor against a far wall, beneath a taped-up list of phrases the kids were encouraged to say to each other: “I like you,” “You’re a rainbow,” “Are you OK?”
In that moment, though, the 6-year-old didn’t say anything at all, because she believed that a man with a gun was stalking the hallways of her school in the nation’s capital, and MaKenzie feared what he might do to her.
Three times between September and November, bursts of gunfire near MaKenzie’s public charter elementary school led DC Prep to seal off its Washington campus and sequester its students. During the last one, on Nov. 16, a silver sedan parked just around the corner at 10:42 a.m., then the men inside stepped out and fired more than 40 rounds. As MaKenzie’s class hid upstairs, teachers frantically rushed three dozen preschoolers off the playground and back into the building.
“The lockdowns,” as MaKenzie calls them, have changed her, because the little girl with long braids and chocolate-brown eyes remembers what it was like before them, when she always felt safe at her school, and she knows what it’s been like afterward, when that feeling disappeared.
School shootings remain rare, even after 2018, a year of historic carnage on K-12 campuses. What’s not rare are lockdowns, which have become a hallmark of American education and a byproduct of this country’s inability to curb its gun violence epidemic. Lockdowns save lives during real attacks, but even when there is no gunman stalking the hallways, the procedures can inflict immense psychological damage on children convinced that they’re in danger. And the number of kids who have experienced these ordeals is extraordinary.
More than 4.1 million students endured at least one lockdown in the 2017-2018 school year alone, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by The Washington Post that included a review of 20,000 news stories and data from school districts in 31 of the country’s largest cities.
The number of students affected eclipsed the populations of Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware and Vermont combined. But the total figure is likely much higher because many school districts – including in Detroit and Chicago – do not track them and hundreds never make the news, particularly when they happen at urban schools attended primarily by children of color.
Still, on a typical day last school year, at least 16 campuses locked down, with nine related to gun violence or the threat of it. The Post’s final tally of lockdowns exceeded 6,200.
The sudden order to hunker down can overwhelm students, who have wept and soiled themselves, written farewell messages to family members and wills explaining what should be done with their bicycles and PlayStations. The terror can feel especially acute right after school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida, when kids are inundated with details from massacres that have taken the lives of students just like them.
In New York City earlier this year, rumors of a firearm on campus sparked panic at a Staten Island high school, where teens desperately texted and called their parents, begging for help, telling them, “I love you.”
In Fremont, Nebraska, students sobbed as they hid for nearly two hours in a girls’ locker room with the lights turned off after a teenager was spotted with a gun. When armed officers barged in, they ordered the kids to put their hands up.
In Pensacola, Florida, a sixth-grader messaged his grandmother, certain a shooter was in the building after social media threats triggered a lockdown. “Please check me out before I doe,” he wrote her, then corrected his misspelling: “die.”
And then there are the kids like MaKenzie, who have never heard of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine but have heard the sound of gunshots on the streets where they live and play and learn.
She cherishes few things more than school. All of MaKenzie’s classes are her favorite, except for language arts, her “favorite favorite.” The girl can read well beyond her grade level and has nearly memorized the story “Monsters Don’t Scuba Dive,” said her mother, Gabrielle Woody, who works in an aftercare program at DC Prep.
The network of charter schools, which attract long waiting lists each year, have intentionally planted campuses in communities struggling with poverty and, like MaKenzie’s, violence. She’s excelled, though, earning a spot on the “Principal’s Cabinet,” which means her behavior, attendance and grades rank among the best in her age group. In the photo marking that honor, later stapled to a bulletin board outside her classroom, she looks elated: pink socks pulled up to her shins, left hand on a hip, right hand flashing the deuces sign, bright beads in her hair, and a grin revealing the baby teeth she’d begun to lose.
MaKenzie didn’t stop loving school because of the lockdowns, but she did think about them often. About how upsetting it was that they had interrupted her time to learn new words and different ways to add up numbers. About how scared she’d felt when some of the kids wouldn’t stop making noise and how her teacher had offered them Smarties if they could just stay quiet for a little longer.
She’d also become wary of recess on the playground, where games of tag and climbs across the monkey bars had once been among the highlights of her days.
“Until the lockdowns happened,” MaKenzie said. “I don’t want to be outside because what if someone was shooting and we had to leave and we were too late and everybody got hurt?”
No district is exempt from the fallout of lockdowns, regardless of demographics or affluence, location or security. School systems in every state and the District of Columbia had several last school year, The Post’s analysis found, and they happened in buildings with as few as four students and as many as 5,000.
While various threats, sometimes referencing bombs, accounted for 15 percent of lockdowns, and police manhunts near campuses made up a similar share, at least 61 percent of lockdowns were related to firearms.
In fact, on every schoolday between Labor Day in September 2017 and Memorial Day in May 2018, a campus in this country went into lockdown because of a shooting or the perceived danger of one. Typically, those stemmed from gunfire around campuses or ominous warnings – often anonymous and seldom legitimate – that someone intended to carry out an attack.
Students of all ages were affected, including America’s youngest and most vulnerable. Last school year, more than 1 million elementary-age children experienced a lockdown, and among that group, at least 220,000 were in kindergarten or prekindergarten, the Post analysis revealed.
While most kids won’t suffer long-term consequences, experts who specialize in childhood trauma suspect that a meaningful percentage will.
“This is a clear and pressing public health issue,” said Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, after learning of The Post’s findings, which he called “staggering.”
“We have very good data that children in proximity to frightening circumstances, such as those that trigger school lockdowns, are at risk for lasting symptoms. These include everything from worsening academic and social progression to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, post-traumatic symptomatology and substance abuse,” he continued. “Given the potential scope of the problem, we are in dire need of more information. How do we protect children from these issues?”
The possibility of imminent danger, however small, poses a complex challenge for school administrators, who must sometimes make critical decisions within seconds. “We have to take every threat seriously” is a common refrain among educators, and they’re right, because the cost of ignoring one can be – and has been – dead children.
John Czajkowski, a former teacher and naval officer who heads security for a 40,000-student district near San Diego, uses an analogy to help people understand the purpose, and impact, of a lockdown.
“It’s like an air bag,” he said, because they save drivers’ lives in car crashes, but the devices might also break noses and crack teeth. His point: Full-scale lockdowns should be employed only when absolutely necessary.
Last school year, the system Czajkowski oversees, Sweetwater Union High School District, dealt with 71 student threats, he said, but only seven times did schools lock down, and five of those were prompted by off-campus danger, such as a burglary or gunfire. In 11 instances, schools went into what they refer to as “secure campus” mode, in which classroom and exterior doors are locked and no one enters or leaves the buildings but teachers can continue with instruction.
Some school districts still categorize that or similar measures as lockdowns, while others call them “lockouts,” “building mode” or “sheltering in place.” Though those scenarios can also unnerve children, the experiences are usually less jarring than turning the lights off and hiding in the corner. Still, because there are no universally accepted best practices, schools take dramatically different – and sometimes haphazard – approaches to preparing students for potential danger.
Earlier this month, at Lake Brantley High in Florida, an unannounced active-shooter drill induced pandemonium across the 2,700-student campus, leaving mothers and fathers furious and their kids contending with nightmares.
“People were crying and texting their parents goodbye and having asthma attacks,” said Cathy Kennedy-Paine, head of the National Association of School Psychologists’ crisis response team. “To do that to children, I think that’s unconscionable.”
She and other experts agreed that drilling is essential, both to protect students from physical injury and to ease the stress of going through a real-life emergency, but the drills must be done with care.
To illustrate the harm that a lockdown can do, Franci Crepeau-Hobson, a psychologist, pointed to a pair of schools she worked with in recent years.
In December 2013, a teenager killed a fellow senior at Colorado’s Arapahoe High before taking his own life. As Crepeau-Hobson and her colleagues on the state’s crisis response team treated students and staff in the aftermath, they found a school well prepared to care for teens struggling with grief and fear.
Not long after, Crepeau-Hobson was asked to help students from another high school outside Denver. In that case, an off-campus robbery and carjacking left two people shot, but no violence ever reached school grounds.
“They were on lockdown for hours and hours,” without any information to alleviate their dread, Crepeau-Hobson recalled. Afterward, she said, the school did little to ensure that its students felt OK, though many didn’t. Teens suffered from stomach pain and headaches. Some struggled to focus in class. Others couldn’t sleep.
“It was like, wow, this was what we see after a school shooting,” she said. “They looked very much like kids we’ve seen from other major crises.”
Compounding the problem for educators, according to The Post’s analysis: A leading cause of lockdowns – threats – and a common effect – anxiety – are contagious, and they’re each exacerbated by actual gun violence. Nationally, the seven days with the highest number of incidents leading to school lockdowns occurred in the two weeks after the bloodshed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Broward County, Florida, on Feb. 14.
The same phenomenon, The Post found, can happen at the local level. In the month after dozens of people were slaughtered at a Las Vegas country music festival on Oct. 1, 2017, the number of lockdowns in Nevada’s Clark County School District spiked 42 percent to a total of 37, the highest count during the entire school year.
It’s not just mass killings, though, that leave children believing they might get shot in their classrooms. As Ajani Dartiguenave rode to school in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his mom one morning in October, he heard on the radio that a student at Butler High, about 20 miles away, had been gunned down in a hallway. Ajani, 12, didn’t say anything about it at the time, recalled his mother, Claudia Charles, and she didn’t discuss it with him. They live in an upscale neighborhood where crime is rare. He had never seen a gun in person or heard shots from his bedroom, and Charles, a nurse, wouldn’t even let him play with water pistols. Not once did she imagine that the violence they’d heard about on the radio would make him feel unsafe.
Eleven days later, Ajani was studying English literature at Governors’ Village STEM Academy when someone on the intercom announced that the campus was being locked down. The seventh-grader didn’t know that an anonymous threat – never in danger of being carried out – had elicited the response. He knew only that a boy in the community had been shot to death inside another school a week before, and that made Ajani think he would get shot, too.
So, as he and his friends sat on the floor, Ajani reached into his bookbag, adorned with a smiling cartoon Anime character. Without making a sound, he pulled out a pencil, writing first on an index card and then a sheet of notebook paper. At the top, he scribbled his home address and his mom’s name.
“I am sorry for anything I have done,” he wrote.
“I am scared to death.”
“I will miss you.”
“I hope that you are going to be ok with me gone.”
The threat arrived before dawn, and as he read the words, Matt Henry could feel his stomach tighten.
It had been nine days since 17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas, and now Henry, the superintendent of a rural district south of Portland, Oregon, had just heard from police about an anonymous Facebook post vowing violence against his students in Gervais.
“All the school shootings,” it read, “I’m coming for you woodburn and gervas Friday February 23 10 am.”
In the hours that followed, a tide of chaos and angst would sweep through schools across the country, and by the time night fell in America, 33 separate incidents would lead to lockdowns, the most The Post identified during any single day last school year.
Henry read the warning just after 5 a.m. on the West Coast, and already, campuses 3,000 miles east were stationing police officers outside shuttered doors.
The Concord School in Vermont had locked down first thing that morning after spotting another Facebook post, originally taken from Snapchat, that included a picture of the Parkland gunman and a promise to “do better than him on Friday at concord High School.” The threat, investigators discovered, had nothing to do with the Vermont school, and had instead been directed to one with a similar name in New Hampshire.
Around the same time, campuses went into lockdown in North Carolina (a Facebook post promising to “shoot up” a school), Ohio (an armed suspect at large near a middle and high school), Michigan (an online threat made by one teen toward another) and Florida (a 14-year-old showing two students what looked like a pair of guns during a FaceTime call, before saying he was going to attack their high school) – all before 10 a.m. on the East Coast.
In DeKalb County, Illinois, an entire district – 11 schools – locked down after administrators learned of a Snapchat warning that stated “at 2pm no one is safe here.” The note appeared on an image that looked as though it had been written on a bathroom stall, said Superintendent Jamie Craven. His staff quickly confirmed it didn’t match any of their bathrooms, and police concluded that a 13-year-old had seen the message online and simply reposted it. Neither revelation, however, quelled the worry that had already spread from cellphone to cellphone, student to student, many of whom went home early.
“Kids are very aware,” Craven said, “of the things that have gone on around the country.”
On that Friday in late February, the fear was so intense in some communities that their schools didn’t even open. In Ohio, all five in one district remained closed after a potential threat surfaced overnight. In Arizona, seven schools on Navajo land did the same thing because comments about a potential shooting were made on social media. In California, a prestigious prep school canceled for the day when administrators learned that a former student had mentioned “revenge,” along with the school’s name, in an Instagram photo of a shotgun.
Meanwhile, as classes began in some places and neared their end in others, lockdowns continued to pop up nationwide: Gallup High in New Mexico at 8 a.m. local time, Adelante High in California at 9:20 a.m., South Gibson County High in Tennessee at 10:30 a.m., Lillie B. Williamson High in Alabama at noon, Laguna-Acoma High in New Mexico at 12:30 p.m., Winona Middle in Minnesota at 2:30 p.m.
In Gervais, a 1,000-student district in western Oregon, all three area schools had begun the day in a reduced lockdown, allowing teachers to run their classes but prohibiting anyone from going in or out of the buildings, said Henry, the superintendent. Still, nothing felt normal as officers stood guard outside and staff had to escort younger kids to and from bathrooms, heightening their worry that danger loomed. Only about half of the middle and high school students showed up that day.
By midmorning, Henry said, police were certain that the threat had originated out of state and wasn’t credible, so staff and students tried to transition back into their usual routines. Then, shortly after 2 that afternoon, just as the elementary school had begun dismissal, word came of another online threat. This one, Henry recalled, shook him, because the message implied that a gunman was in their town and on his way.
The superintendent grabbed his coat and a radio and headed out the door, jogging to the front of his nearby elementary school. Through the swirl of buses and arriving parents, he scanned the street, searching for an unfamiliar face. Henry had dealt with frightening situations before, once catching a student on another campus with a .25-caliber handgun. Yet that moment outside the elementary school felt unique. Henry was unarmed, but after a career in education spanning 30 years, he had talked through these scenarios many times with his wife, who worked in another school district. If a shooter appeared, he would do whatever he could to draw fire away from the school.
As time passed and, at last, police determined that the second message had also been a hoax, Henry felt relief, but also fury that his kids, or any kids, had to endure such turmoil in the places they should feel the most secure. That afternoon, he recorded a final robo-call, giving an update on all that had happened.
“This has been a very trying day,” Henry said, and at the end of the message, he asked parents to hug their children when they got home.
As the Nov. 16 lockdown at the DC Prep elementary school ended, Principal Neema Desai watched a trio of her preschoolers emerge from a conference room where they’d hunkered for 20 minutes. The kids, who had been on the playground when the shooting started, were still wearing their jackets because the staff had rushed them back in so quickly.
The looks on their faces so unsettled her that she struggled to describe them later.
“Detached” was the word Desai eventually settled on, imagining what the children were thinking as they shuffled by: “I’m 3, and I’m trying to process what just happened in the school, in the place where my parents trust my teachers, where I’m supposed to be safe.”
In the hours that followed, students began to unravel. Among the things they said:
“Who’s going to shoot me?”
“I want to shoot people.”
“I want to shoot myself.”
Meanwhile, police officers arrived at the crime scene around the corner and began to take note of where the 40-plus bullet casings had scattered. What did not arrive was the caravan of TV trucks and reporters that so often descend on schools when such scenes play out in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.
In its review of 20,000 news stories related to school lockdowns, The Post discovered a disproportionate amount of coverage focused on districts outside large cities. Yet experts say children who live in high-crime urban neighborhoods may be more susceptible to stress during or after lockdowns. That’s because so many of them have been exposed to gunfire in their communities, and the threat of violence at school can trigger traumatic memories.
Cheryl Ward, who oversees Columbus City Schools’ counselors and social workers in Ohio, describes it this way: If a child who adores his grandmother’s sweet potato pie smells a different one, he may think of his grandmother. If a child who has seen a shooting goes into lockdown because of a different one, he may think of the one he witnessed.
Last school year, there were 136 lockdowns of varying degrees across the 110 schools in the Columbus district, one of the highest ratios among large-city systems that The Post reviewed. Ward’s staff is trained to identify vulnerable children before lockdowns so they know who might need extra attention afterward because, for many kids who go through them, their fear of gun violence doesn’t come from faraway mass killings or anonymous dispatches on Facebook.
In Baltimore, where some neighborhoods have long been ravaged by gunfire, school officials say they have worked to find a balance between keeping their kids safe and not disrupting their classes, which means avoiding all-out lockdowns (lights off, kids quiet) unless they have no other choice.
“The anxiety caused by full lockdowns along with the lost learning time take their own toll on our students’ well-being,” district spokeswoman Anne Fullerton said. “Whenever possible, we want our students to have a regular school day and to experience their schools as safe havens.”
For parents at DC Prep, the barrage of shootings and subsequent lockdowns were so disconcerting that some have considered pulling their kids out.
Monique Moore, who works as the school’s operations manager, has been thrilled with her 3-year-old’s progress at DC Prep, where he’s learned 24 letters and memorized every number up to 10. But he was also on the playground that day in November, and since then, she hasn’t stopped imagining what might have happened had the three men in the car turned the corner before they pulled their triggers.
“What’s more important, his safety or his academics?” asked Moore, who might move him to a DC Prep school in another neighborhood. “I have to make a decision sooner or later.”
Shanta Suggs has grappled with the same conflict. Her son, Zayden Saxton, who’s 7, shines at DC Prep, but she sensed his fear and frustration after the lockdowns. When she talked to him about going to a different school, he sounded disappointed.
“What about my other friends? They’re still going to be there,” Zayden said, concerned that the kids in his second-grade class might get hurt after he left.
“I didn’t have an answer for that,” Suggs said.
After the last lockdown, Desai and other administrators decided to change their security protocols, announcing at a meeting with teachers in early December the school would initiate full-scale lockdowns only if danger reached campus. Short of that, it would go into “building mode,” a far less disruptive response.
The next day, on a bright, sunny morning in Washington, D.C., someone around the corner fired a dozen shots. Desai and her staff hurried to lock the doors to the school, but in a classroom on the second floor, MaKenzie and the other first-graders didn’t stop learning new words or ways to add up numbers.
In April, the country will mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High, and that day will arrive in the aftermath of the worst year of school shootings in modern American history. This spring, The Post launched a database that tracked incidents of gun violence on campuses dating back to 1999, and the carnage in 2018 shattered every meaningful record.
Most shootings at schools: 25.
Most people shot: 94.
Most people killed: 33.
Most students exposed to gunfire on their campuses: 25,332.
“There was once a time where we could say schools are the safest place for a child to be, and they would agree,” said Steven Berkowitz, a psychiatrist who has worked with kids for 25 years. “They wouldn’t now, even though it’s still true. The perception of safety is no longer there.”
It is against that backdrop that millions of children will continue to hide in the corners of their classrooms, blinds drawn and doors bolted shut. That’s where Alana Weber was one afternoon early last month after the announcement of a lockdown had come over the intercom at Niskayuna High, just northwest of Albany, New York.
Alana, 15, texted her mom, desperate to know what was going on. The girl believed a shooter had reached the hallways, sure that the sound of slamming doors was actually gunshots. Struggling to stay calm, she asked her mother to send pictures of Milo, their miniature poodle.
Word soon spread that a threat, written on a note found in Niskayuna, had provoked the lockdown, but that offered only temporary relief. Police didn’t know if the warning was legitimate, so they brought in dogs to search every backpack and locker, student and staff member.
For nearly six hours, Alana and her classmates remained hidden in silence, without food or water or access to bathrooms. Instead, they had to use trash cans. When at last the teens were allowed to come out, police patted them down.
No weapon was ever found.
Alana came home thankful to be safe but deeply shaken. Often shy, she logged into Facebook and decided to share her feelings.
The teen detailed all that they had been through that afternoon, not as a plea for attention, but instead as one for help. The lockdown had happened on Nov. 5, the day before the midterm elections. Alana knew she couldn’t vote for candidates who support gun control or do much of anything else to change the fact that kids like her all over the country continue to fear that they might get shot in their schools. So she begged the adults to do something about it.
“You have the power to make it so we don’t have to worry about these things,” she wrote on the eve of Election Day, “so we don’t have to hide in corners afraid to make a sound.”
The next day, as millions of Americans went to the polls, more than 10,000 children in at least 17 schools endured another lockdown.