If the Threat is Avoided, What Can We Teach?


In April 1999, I was a Junior at Washington State University and fully immersed in history and education classes on my way to achieving a goal I set in 10th grade, to be a history teacher and football coach.  I finished my morning classes, went to my room to rest before my afternoon classes, and someone asked if I still wanted to be a teacher. In a time before social media posts and push notifications, I had no idea what was happening at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.  Like millions of other people, I turned on my TV, skipped my later commitments, and watched in disbelief, confused at what I was seeing; but, I still planned on being a teacher.

In response, to what some call the Columbine High School Shooting, schools around the United States increased the amount of lockdown and lockout drills included in their safety routines.  These drills take away from instructional time and disrupt the teaching day, but no educator that I know complains about them.  We understand that no effective teaching and learning can happen if students don’t feel safe.

Every year, educators who teach closely to one another make a certain type of eye contact, it’s hard to describe and it doesn’t take much time.  We lock eyes and silently and steadfastly promise one another we know what could be on the line.  We joke about drills and express disbelief at the news we sometimes hear.  We participate in training experiences about and voice concerns towards safety updates; but, we still go to our classrooms eager to teach.

Maybe I make it a point to make these types of situations a bit more personal due to past-experience.  In my time in education, I was once in a room where a firearm was suspected to be present.  I remember the day vividly.  The students were taking notes while watching the Dennis Quaid movie Savior about the Bosnian War.  I began to receive out-of-the-ordinary text messages from one of the administrators asking specifics about my location and the location of certain students.  Sensing that something was not right, I started passing back half-graded papers asking the students to review their work.  Suddenly, the door swung violently open and two uniformed police officers flew into room, ready to deal with the worst-case scenario.  I was frozen solid, the students in the room were shocked, and in a matter of seconds, the incident was over.

Literally, the incident was over. At least, that’s how everyone outside of the classroom saw it.  Let’s get back to business, resume this movie, and make sure we meet the objectives for the day.  I was left not knowing how to respond.  The students had questions, I didn’t know if I could give any information or how best to answer them.  I can’t remember if I called the office or the office called me, someone asked if everything was alright?  I simply asked for someone to come up and talk to the students.

A police officer came up answered a few questions and then left.  I don’t know if the students felt if their questions were answered, I don’t know if there was resolution.

Participating in the most recent safety training emphasizing the “Run-Hide-Fight” strategy and reflecting on the experiences I’ve had in the classroom, I thought, maybe we should also create learning experiences about the things we sometimes omit when preparing for issues of vital importance like safety.  What can we do to prepare for safety drills that take into account the cognitive processes of teens, ‘tweens, and perhaps elementary-aged children.

The police officers explained how students need to stop and think before “going live” on their smart device during an emergency.  He said something like, the students need to know that going live during an emergency means that they might unintentionally put themselves and their peers in danger because they cannot be aware of what is going on around them and concentrate on their live update.  My reaction, why would they think this way when the world in which they live says the normal and cool thing is to go live.

Technological literacy, digital citizenship, and appropriate use of social media should continue to be the focus of teaching topics, lesson designs, and embedding strategies.  Consistently creating these learning experiences can help students understand the choices they may have when facing a situation involving real or possible threats to their safety.

Also, what if it’s a false alarm, like what happened in my room? A credible and verified threat is reported at school but a real weapon is not found. The police presence, though calming, disrupts the ebb and flow of typical day or the awkwardness of a drill day due to the plausibility of an on-campus threat.  Although not every student may experience an adverse reaction to this type of disruption, some might.  Is it reasonable to expect everything to return to normal, even though to some students, it is no longer a normal day?  Perhaps it is time for instructional designers, curriculum specialists, and teachers to work with counselors,  psychologists, and other specialists to create a curriculum that helps the students who experience adverse reactions like stress due internalizing negative emotions caused by abnormal days like the one students in my class experiences.

I was blessed with the opportunity to become friends with a man who was close to tragedy at Columbine High School.  He could not articulate to me what it was like for him or his close friends.  I asked, he tried, but there was too great of a gap between what he knew, what I had experienced, and what several educators, police officials, first responders, and policy makers have studied and speculated.  Maybe it’s time to ask, if the threat is avoided, what can we teach?

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