When Hans and Jessica Graffunder sent their kids to school at Small Middle School in Southwest Austin last Thursday morning, they didn’t expect that by mid-morning, their children would be in the middle of a lockdown situation. The Graffunder’s couldn’t have anticipated that their daughter, 11, would find herself in the school library with a librarian urging her to find a better place to hide so she wouldn’t get shot, or that their son, 13, would be locked in a room with a teacher who drew the curtains at the windows as unknown people rattled the door handles from the outside.
And when these terrifying scenarios happen, there is no anticipation, no warning. But what about when there is no actual shooter? When there is no emergency? What happens when it’s a lockdown drill simulating a gunman on campus planned by the Austin Independent School District and the middle school itself? Shouldn’t parents and teachers anticipate that because they’ve been given plenty of advanced notice?
On the morning of the December 12—after they’d sent their kids to school—the Graffunders and other parents at the school received an email from the school informing them that there would be an unannounced lockdown drill later that day. According to Hans Graffunder, the unannounced nature of the drill, which happened almost a year to the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, had both students and teachers in a panic.
“The only people at the school who knew it was going to happen, or knew it was a drill, were the principal and a few administrative staff,” Graffunder said in an email to Texas Monthly after the drill. “The teachers did not know it was a drill. The simulation took place in a passing period, so all the kids and teachers scrambled for a place to hide. My daughter ended up in the library. The emergency team went around to rooms where kids and teachers were hiding and proceeded to rattle door handles and beat on locked doors to simulate someone trying to break in. The librarian told my daughter that she better find a better pace to hide or she would get shot. She was told that a bullet could dome right through the library window and hit her. She was absolutely terrified. Kids and teachers were screaming and crying. One of her teachers had a complete meltdown, which made all of her kids break down, as well.”
Graffunder’s interpretation of the drill is pretty consistent with that offered by the school’s principal, Amy Taylor. (Taylor does say that door handles were checked to ensure that they were locked, not to simulate someonewas breaking in.) Both the school and the outraged parent agree on the basics of what happened: The school simulated a lockdown without warning teachers, and parents were informed the day of the drill with, at least in some cases, insufficient warning to give them the opportunity to pull their kids out of school for the day.
While no one would dispute the importance of emergency preparedness, the way the unannounced drill was carried out raises an important question: Is it possible to prepare schools for this sort of emergency without traumatizing the students and teachers involved?
That’s a question without an easy answer, and it speaks to a few of the conflicting points of view here. Rachel Graffunder isn’t upset with the teachers involved—she acknowledges that the librarian who warned her daughter that she could be shot might have saved her life, had it been an actual emergency. “The teachers did the very best they could,” she told Texas Monthly, “But why were they ever put in this situation?”
For her part, Principal Taylor—who was only available to answer questions about the incident via email—explained that the teachers who may have panicked were not following procedure. “Schools go into lockdown for many reasons, such as an intruder or an immediate danger that exists in the vicinity,” she wrote. “Teachers and students are expected to remain calm, but not speculate or make assumptions about the nature of the event or its cause,” adding that “Staff is expected to follow procedures and project a calm attitude so that students do not become scared based on adult fears.”
That’s a fine rule to put into place, but easier said than done. Shooting situations in schools can happen anywhere at any time—the incident at a Colorado high school the day after Small Middle School’s drill illustrates that—and even when the “adult fears” take the form of aggressively trying to protect a student by imploring to her the seriousness of hiding from a possible attacker, rather than the “complete meltdown” Hans Graffunder described another teacher as having, it’s still a traumatic experience to put a kid through.
Which is the concern in this case: A school shooting is one of the more traumatic experiences that it’s possible to imagine a child (or an adult) going through. And even if, at the end of the simulated experience, they’re told that it was only a drill and there was never any real danger, the shock of the experience isn’t just going to disappear. So is it worth putting students through that for the drill?
That’s something that Principal Taylor and Rachel Graffunder disagree on. In her email, Taylor wrote that “school safety is a top priority, and the positive effects of the unannounced drill are the future preparedness the school will have, should an unfortunate circumstance occur requiring a school lockdown.”
Graffunder, meanwhile, isn’t convinced. “There are some things you can’t be prepared for,” she said. “We do need to be prepared—but how prepared can we really be?”