Media spliced by Managing Editor, Olivia Berger ’22, via MChe Lee on Unsplash.
Five years ago, Grace Church School lost Elizabeth Lee, a faculty member, a parent, and a beloved member of the community, due to an act of gun violence. This tragedy occurred across the street from the High School and just two blocks away from the Middle School. For many, this was the community’s first encounter with gun violence, and although most students present at the high school in 2017 have graduated, the reverberations of this tragedy can still be felt today. One of the most prevalent ways in which this event’s impact can be felt is in lockdown drills; now tinged with a sense of personal loss and the reality of the threat that gun violence poses.
There are, of course, good reasons for these drills. Schools across the country have instituted lockdown drills in response to the increasing number of school shootings that have occurred since the incendiary shooting at the Columbine High School in 1999. New York State in particular requires schools to hold at least four lockdown drills and eight evacuation/fire drills per school year between September 1st and June 30th. The seeming increase in the frequency of lockdown drills, however, has led to many questions from students regarding the steps, procedures, and frequency of the practice in the context of independent schools, schools in New York City, and high schools elsewhere, with some even taking it into their own hands to better prepare for the possibility of a school shooting.
Students frequently pose the question, why do we have these drills so often– particularly during the second quarter of the year where we have had two in the span of a month? The number of drills has been a source of confusion within the student body, many of whom are aware of the drills’ paramount importance but who question the necessity of mandating drills so close together. Topher Nichols, Head of Non-academic Programs and Director of Academic Systems, explained why these two drills were scheduled consecutively in the winter.“ We have students and faculty alike who may be particularly stressed by the idea of a lockdown drill, so we wanted to give them a few months to really form a community and support system before throwing them into that situation.” He continued, “putting [the drills] closer together allows the community to get some good practice and familiarize themselves with the procedures.”
While the existence of these drills is a terrifying indication of the dangerous reality we live in, they’re ultimately a necessary part of a schools’ safety protocols. Members of Grace must be prepared for the gut-wrenching possibility that the shootings screened on the news may very well happen to our own community. Although this fact is a horrifying one, it’s an unavoidable reality that the school has tried to make more comprehensible, especially for younger age groups in the Middle School and Lower School.
Mr. George Davison, Head of School, has talked extensively about how lockdowns are being implemented in different parts of the school, relaying in an email to Grace parents that, for early childhood students, lockdown drills are referred to as “huddle drills,” to soften the idea of the practice for the younger members of the community. Even so, there is a lot of questioning regarding the procedures themselves and whether or not they are truly effective in the scenario they’re supposed to prepare students for.
The lockdown drills, while not perfect, are among the best options the school realistically has in the event of a threatening individual entering the school. An alternate security measure could entail securing weapons in classrooms for teachers to use in a lockdown emergency. While this notion may seem straightforward, it is not a safe option as most teachers aren’t trained in firearm safety or use, nor is it a teacher’s job to be equipped with weapons.
Another suggested method for what students and teachers can do in the event of a lockdown is the possibility of an escape route — through windows or other areas in the school that lead to the outside. However, because Grace is part of a historic neighborhood, changing the exterior of either school would be nearly impossible. This, in combination with the fact that a majority of classes either take place in the school basement or on an elevated floor, ensures that this solution (which may very well still work for other schools with different building layouts) could potentially be dangerous in itself. As such, the seemingly best measure the school can take is the preventative practice of lockdown drills, as the other options have their own unique risks.
The safety and security of the community is a top priority of the administration, so next time you find yourself joking around or just otherwise not taking lockdown drills seriously, take a moment to remind yourself that there is a reason these drills exist and that they have been planned and executed with the best of intentions for our school and our community.