Ninety-five percent of American schools now conduct drills to prepare students for a school shooter. For adults who were out of high school by the time of the 1999 Columbine shooting, this is an unfamiliar phenomenon. We don’t have a clear picture of how the drills are experienced by the children they were designed for.
In this partnership between Slate and the Trace, we spoke to more than 20 students from different parts of the country, to learn what they see, hear, and feel during what has become a routine experience in American schools.
We turned those experiences into an audio story you can listen to in the audio player just below, or on your preferred podcast app. You can also scroll further to read and hear selections from the kids we spoke to, kindergartners and high school seniors alike, as they describe how these drills frighten and bore, annoy and perplex. Every school performs the drills in a different way, and every child experiences them alone. But even the younger students know better than we might expect what the drills are for. Here are their stories.
“They say it’s a drill on the loudspeaker, most of the time, but they might be lying just to make sure you’re not going to panic.”
South Orange, New Jersey
“I repeat, this is a code red lockdown drill.” I was so scared. I stood on top of the toilet, but then I remembered my teacher told me this year to sit on the toilet and put my feet up. And then last year, my teacher told me to stand on the toilet. So I was like, wait, what do I do? I was panicking. Then I heard footsteps outside. I was like, oh my gosh, is someone coming? I tried to stay as quiet as I could be. I just hear footsteps, click-clack, click-clack … and then I heard the shifting of the doorknob, and I was like oh my gosh, what’s going to happen? I was just hoping … hoping that it was the principal coming, not anybody that was going to kill me.
“We know it’s not real, it’s just a drill, so people start to goof off quite a bit. But we’re supposed to take it really seriously.”
You’re supposed to feel safe at school, you have your teachers … you’re in your community. But it’s really stressful to think about a random person doing that. And really just sad. If something happened, the first thing I’d do is really get worried and maybe start to cry, and then I would hide, but I feel it’s important that someone needs to fight back. Maybe not me, because I’m very scared. I would tell everyone to push all the tables to the doors and just start hiding, and if someone breaks in, do something crazy, pull something elaborate off. But I’d probably just start crying.
“Who’s gonna win? Someone with a rifle or someone with a textbook?”
If an active shooter went on, you’re supposed to, like, grab kind of a blunt object to protect yourself with it. If someone were to come at you, you, like, either, like, throw it at them to slow them down or you, if you are close to them, you just whack them in the head with it. Or if you were to grab a pencil, it’s pretty self-explanatory—you just stab.
I was kind of just thinking, well, who’s gonna win? Someone with a rifle or someone with a textbook? So, she’s telling us to barricade the doors, but I was kind of thinking, well, if the locks don’t work, they could probably push the door forward and remove the barricades.
“I was like a little porcupine or a little hedgehog rolling up to a ball, trying to protect myself from the enemy.”
We were all sitting under the sink, and under the shelves, so it was kind of uncomfortable because everyone in the class was there. Everyone was kinda fidgety, and our teacher told us not to move. I felt like I was a little ball, and I was trying to stay together, and, like, I was like a little porcupine or a little hedgehog rolling up to a ball, trying to protect myself from the enemy.
One kid, he was kind of worried and thought it was real. So he had a panic attack. He started breathing heavily and crying, and everyone was really worried about him. So then we had waited for a few minutes and then everyone started to calm him down. Like, “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s just fake, we’re just practicing.” One kid, he’s really funny, he said, “It’s OK, man, it’s OK, cool your beans!” Everyone started laughing.
“You know there’s not a school shooter in your hallways right now, but you know this is going to be a reality for a school, somewhere.”
Many teachers talk about what we would do for their specific classroom, if there were a shooter. In the class we were in, my European history teacher says, ‘‘Well, if there’s a shooter, I’d be so mad I’d just go smack him, and you all would jump out this window and run down to University of Louisville.’’ Very helpful. But he talked about how we were on the first floor so that we might be in that classroom, we might be the first ones—first ones to be, um, shot.
The next day, in my journalism 2 class, the teacher mentioned that we were far from many entrances, and we have many exits in our room, so we would probably be able to evacuate fine. And then my chemistry teacher talked about how we could all huddle into the chemical closet, and if a shooter came in, we could splash chemicals in their eyes or whatnot.
I’ve been doing lockdown drills for five years. My teacher says, “Lockdown, everybody in the corner,” turns off the lights, and then he locks the door, and then we sit down. We basically sit behind the desk, like a big clump. You really have to be squinched. If you’re all laid out, there’s not enough room for everybody.
People are so close to you and they’re right next to you, and sometimes people sit on your legs on accident. Sometimes, if you lean your head, you can feel the other person’s hair. We’re pretty calm about it sometimes because we do it a lot.
“Usually it’s kinda fun—you’re under a desk, you look at your friend, you giggle. … The teachers try to make it a serious thing, but it never really is.”
Metuchen, New Jersey
I was in gym. I think it was seventh grade. To preface, I have ADHD. We heard it over the loudspeaker, we were sitting in our squads. We heard it, “We will be entering a lockdown drill, please prepare.” So we go in the locker room, and I’m standing there. I start playing with my fingers because I’m incredibly bored. And the gym teacher, who I don’t particularly like, decided to put me up to the front because he did not like me playing with my fingers because he thought it was distracting to other children. I was not making a sound. And then I sneezed. And everybody thought I was dabbing.
Dabbing is sort of a dance move from a few years ago. So then he gave me detention because he thought I was trying to get everybody to laugh.
“Why we would do the lockdown drill? Because if a wild animal or a robber or something came barging in.”
We first did a lockdown drill, and we only did it about two times last year, in kindergarten. So, how the teacher explained it, she was thinking, like, if a wild animal came, and we hid in the bathroom—if it were a mouse or something, we probably wouldn’t have to do that. But if it were a zebra or lion or something.
Now there were spiders in the bathroom and some people were afraid of spiders, but they still had to go in, they just had to hug my kindergarten teacher. But it was nothing to be afraid of, they were daddy longlegs. But some spiders are poisonous, and I’m afraid of those.
Last week there was a real stranger in the building, and we saw it on the security cameras. And I was very frightened, and I got a feeling stuck in my head about… I was thinking if we were going to be OK because the stranger was literally just outside the door of our classroom. And it was actually just our principal dressed in stranger clothes. I saw her wearing, like, a boy wig with her hair up in a bun. She had, like, a white shirt, a green tank top, and some, like, grayish blueish pants.
I thought it was kind of scary because I didn’t know who her true self was. So, we hid in the backroom or the closet. And it was very crowded, and we were very quiet.
“I remember it being a very weird shift from thinking about calculus to how I would escape if someone had a gun in my school.”
ALICE is an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate. … [With] lockdown, basically we were just sitting ducks, and we were just staying in our classroom and hoping that no one came in, but obviously that isn’t always the case. So the idea with ALICE is that it gives us more options. Basically what they’re telling us is that we have permission and that we’re encouraged to counter a shooter if given the opportunity.
Countering always comes up. Some people have some fun with it because they’re, like, “OK, what can I throw at this person?” And to some extent, it’s kind of just being ridiculous because a water bottle isn’t going to be a fair match against an AR-15. And we all kind of know that. But we’re also being serious at the same time because it’s kind of all we have.
“If it happens—a school shooting—I could risk my life, and I don’t want to do that, so I want to learn how to do it correctly.”
Some of them are laughing and cracking jokes, some of them are just messing around, and some of them are just standing like robots. It’s very unorganized, the drills. We were talking and then there was a moment of silence for a straight minute, and it was really creepy. I’m thinking: Are we ever going to get up? Is the teacher ever going to say anything?
After the drill at recess, I just didn’t do anything, I just sat there and thought about everything. I thought there was going to be more action. We could have done a lot more than just sat there the whole time.
“We got to our places and got heavy things. … There’s spheres and rectangles and triangles. I got the sphere because that’s the heaviest thing.”
The teacher has to barricade the door and then, like, we have to get something heavy, and hide in a spot where you can actually hide, like in this cozy corner—it’s like a little couch in a corner. And the thing that I got was heavy blocks. There’s like spheres and rectangles and triangles. So I got this sphere because that’s the heaviest thing. But there’s only three spheres. I got one, but the rest of the class got other shapes. And then the teacher pretended to be the bad guy in the school.
“Some of our teachers do have plans: ‘Well if a shooter tries to butt their gun in through the glass of the door, I’ll grab the gun.’ ’’
I think lots of us are faced with this and we go: I know what I’d do. And we go: I’d totally be able to this, that, and the other. But I think practically, knowing myself, I would be in abject terror, and it would almost be hard to get myself to do anything, much less heft a heavy object at someone trying to get in. If I had to rank on all this, of things I would be worried about in school, I think it would be: No. 1, getting a bad grade. No. 2, school shooter.
“But then all the teachers tell you, ‘You should have a worst-case scenario in your mind.’ And I don’t get why they do that.”
It’s so scary, especially what’s been happening in the past year. That’s the main reason of lockdowns nowadays. At first I didn’t get it, but now I’ve heard all these stories, I sort of really get why they tell us to. When I heard about the first school shooting I’m, like, wow that’s why we do lockdown drills. We get the Seattle Times every morning, and it was on the front page of the Seattle Times, and I’m pretty sure I asked my friends, and they told me that it’s a very sad story. That’s a reason to be afraid. But having a little drill is not a reason to be afraid.
“If a real intruder came, I think since I’m used to it now, I wouldn’t be so scared by it.”
Before lunch we did the intruder drill. I was sitting at my desk, we were learning some math. And then we heard our principal tell us on the speaker there was an intruder drill. We heard someone bang on the door, like [knock, knock, knock]. I knew it was the principal at the time. It was a little scary because it was loud, and very dark in the room. And then it just stopped.
Sometimes I worry about intruder drills, whenever it’s done. If a real intruder came, I think since I’m used to it now, I wouldn’t be so scared by it.
“I was genuinely not sure if I would finish the day alive.”
South Orange, New Jersey
I’ve always been worried about this. Like, every time I have a lockdown drill, I always am really scared by people talking and playing chopsticks or whatever. Because I always do the thing—not in like a, “Oh, I always do the right thing”—but it’s because I don’t want to die. And I thought there was a significant possibility that I could. So I was, like, why is everyone playing games, what’s going on here? Maybe this is a super common feeling or maybe nobody feels this way. It’s hard to tell, because people don’t talk about it much.
That drill made me get mad at the school and everything. It really made me angry and sad and feel kind of trapped, because what am I supposed to do?
“It’s not the kind of thing I want to be thinking about. I want to be like, ‘I hope I finish this Spanish assessment.’ I don’t want to be thinking about, ‘How can I best hide from a shooter?’ ”
During the drill, I was thinking: So they say shut the door and close the blinds, but in my mind I’m thinking, “OK these people have probably gone to school, these people probably know the procedure, so why not do the opposite.” If you have enough time, really make it look like you’re not there. Open all the blinds but take everything off the desks, so it looks like an empty classroom. Maybe even post signs saying “Sorry, the teacher is out on prep.”
“Everybody was acting all goofy and playing. I was about to cry.”
My first thought was, “What should I do?” My second thought, “Oh my gosh, we’re all gonna die if they don’t shut up.” The substitute closed the blinds, and she turned off the lights. We locked the doors, made sure every window was locked and every blind is closed on each window. We hide and sit. Everybody was acting all goofy and playing. I was about to cry because I didn’t know if it was real or not, and everybody was just freaking out and acting like fools, like they didn’t know what to do. They knew what they were doing, but instead of just going straight to where they were supposed to go, they were playing. I was behind my teacher’s desk, by the wall, scared, crunched up, with my head in my legs, about to cry.
“It’s scary. But if you remember that there wasn’t actually an intruder in the building, then usually you feel safe.”
The teacher will push over something. We had this shelf, it was the minilibrary, and he would push it over in front of the door. Usually while he does it, we will get behind something. You’re also supposed to spread out so we’re not clumped together … mostly just get cover … usually if I’m sitting closer to the door I go farther away.
We’re usually crouching and got something ready to throw. I would grab my computer—it’s heavier—whatever’s on your desk that could actually do something. You could get a book or something, not like a crayon. You wouldn’t actually throw it, you’d get in a stance like you were ready to. And the teacher would get behind something. And we would just wait.
“I’m not sure I would be thinking rationally: ‘OK, my job is to pull down the blinds.’ I think I would be thinking more: ‘I need to get in the corner.’ ”
The teacher was talking to a few people that sit right next to the entrance to our classroom, and she was saying, “You all are going to help move this really heavy piece of furniture against the door, while you all in this general vicinity are pushing chairs over here.’’ And she was telling the people where I sit, “You all are going to help pull these blinds down.”
I’m not sure I would be thinking rationally: “OK, my job is to pull down the blinds.” I think I would be thinking more: “I need to get in the corner.” Also, I’m not sure how to pull down the blinds, which was a little alarming. So I just pray that I don’t have to ever fulfill my role. It’s definitely a bigger responsibility than I’m used to in those drills.
“If somebody really, really wanted to hurt somebody or us, they’re going to do it. There’s nothing you can do to stop somebody from hurting somebody.”
I can be very aware that nothing wrong’s going to happen—it’s like a part of me is like, “I’m fine, everything is fine,” but I can still imagine the bad things happening. You can lock the door. But if he really wants to get in, he can find a way to get in. That happens. If he really wants to kill all of us, he can. But that’s just being blunt and honest. You cannot stop somebody from wanting to hurt other people. If that’s his mission, that he got in his head—I’m coming to school and I’m killing every kid in here—if he really can and he will, he can. And us as people, all we can do is do drills and try to protect ourselves. If he comes into the classroom, we can try to run, or teachers can try to protect kids. But you can’t stop bullets.
Reported by Elizabeth Van Brocklin, with additional reporting by Alain Stephens. Audio produced by Sara Burningham. Photography by Stacy Kranitz. Production assistance by Rosemary Belson.