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Opinion | I feel sick leading active shooter drill for preschoolers

Last week I taught my preschool students how to make a fort. We pushed the table out so all 18 kids could fit. I turned off the lights, shoved our cubbies against the locked door and pretended we were in the wilderness.

Michelle Nixon
Michelle Nixon is a preschool teacher from Livonia. (Courtesy photo)

Flipping down the construction paper curtain I had placed on our door’s window, I grabbed the class’s favorite book and sat down. “What can we use for a door?” asked the 4 year old girl in front.

“I’ll be the door,” I whispered.  

Smiling under my mask, I reminded the children we had to be quiet as mice in our fort. If anyone knocked on our door we would pretend we weren’t here. 

I settled into the open space between my class and the rest of our room - crayons still on the desks, blocks on the carpet and the sun streaming in through the window. The boiler hummed. The clock ticked.

My adrenaline activated as I tried to steady my breathing and remind myself this drill was planned. It was an honor to be the door to our fort, solid and strong, keeping other people’s babies safe, just as I had with many previous classes. This time, though, one of those babies was my son.

Sam just turned 5 and he loves fishing. He wears his heart on his sleeve, is missing his two front teeth and is enjoying his first year of school. Last year, due to the pandemic, we enrolled our kids in virtual school, because my husband is a cancer survivor. This year however, with him fully vaccinated, we decided it was time to go back face-to-face. We were worried about Sam, having little experience with a formal school setting, but he’s been thriving.

As I began to read, my eyes met his. He was silently sitting in the back row against the bookshelf and was still, except for his arms. Since toddlerhood, Sammy has rubbed his forearms together when he would get tired, sad, or scared. I always knew when he needed a snuggle or time to process.

In that moment, I felt an emotion that I have never felt in all my years of teaching – failure. I wanted to scoop Sam up, walk out of the building and apologize for the fear, the confusion.  I’m sorry for not doing more, for not putting my foot down. 

I was suddenly furious that our children have to hide in their schools during drills or, God forbid, worse. Anger bubbled up from my stomach and into my throat for the families who have tragically had their babies taken from them. I silently renewed my vow to take a bullet for every one of my students – bring it on. My head spun, my stomach churned, but I kept reading, my eyes glued to their expressions.

My cell phone finally buzzed.  “All clear,” read the banner.

Taking a beat, I clapped my hands together. “You were the quietest little mice I’ve ever seen! I am so proud of you!” I stood up, directed the kids to get ready for snack and swung open the classroom door. The others were still shut, locked, and dark, including my 3 year old’s down the hall and my daughter’s just up the stairs. The door across from me opened, and the teacher nodded in my direction, knowingly, as I headed back into the room full of loud, happy sounds.

Tonight I sobbed in my husband’s arms, ready to pull our three children out of school for good. Nothing excuses the need for active shooter drills, nor do they do much for the 37 families who have already lost children to school shootings this year. The country’s climate is fragile and this problem seems too big to solve quickly. We lack access to mental health care, social-emotional training for teachers, and undervalue positive connections between home and school.

The causes are complicated, so the tragedies continue. We grow more numb every day.  Elected officials in the US lack the commitment to legislate common sense gun reform, despite bipartisan support. Is it fair to our children that we make this their norm?  Is it fair to the families who continue to grieve their unimaginable losses?

So, I humbly offer a suggestion. I invite our elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, to come into the classroom and see what these drills are really like. Help us create plans to barricade the doors, decide what items could be used to throw at a shooter. Explain to the students why we are asking them to hide in their school – a place that should keep them safe, no matter their age.  Answer the questions they have and watch their innocence dim a little, drill by drill, year by year. Do the hallway sweeps, hide under the desks, quietly read a book and play safety fort until the “all clear” text comes.

It’s exhausting and sad, but necessary for you to see how wrong it feels, first hand. We all have a part to play to enact positive change out of such a heartbreaking pattern – I will be the door, but I can’t do it all.

Every one of us can and should do something, though. Please participate in lockdowns alongside us. If you are still not compelled to bring about the change we desperately need, take ownership of that decision.

At least, then, I won’t feel like I’m failing our children alone.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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