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Is It Possible to Prepare Teachers and Students For School Shooting Situations Without Traumatizing Them?

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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?” 

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  • Pretty Little Ballcrusher

    Fire that principal. You don’t train people to handle a crisis like this by simulating it without warning ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF A MASS SCHOOL SHOOTING, when it’s all over the news and tension is already high. I guess this idiot thinks Navy Seals get dropped into Kodiak their first week in. “Hey guys, wing it.”

    • Susan Boatright

      You putting Ted Cruz on your list of DUDS was a TRAVESTY! The man has done more to HELP OUR STATE than anyone else in Congress who just sits there, gets PAID (& a LIFETIME RETIREMENT CHECK) in his short time as a Senator! You are too liberal and way misinformed! I’m canceling my subscription! My beautiful RED STATE can use my donations for better uses!!

      • Pretty Little Ballcrusher

        Lady, I have to assume this reply was issued to me in error, which I don’t find the least bit surprising considering the content.

  • Jed

    pretty sure it was aisd’s call.

    but hey, the trustees just gave a vote of confidence for carstarphen. so nothing to see here, move along.

    • Pretty Little Ballcrusher

      I’m not arguing, but if it were AISD’s call, why not see it simulated without warning at other schools?

      • Jed

        are you sure they didn’t?

        my kids told me about a similar drill at their school – in the past tense – which i have still never heard about from the school itself.

  • Carol O

    Why a lockdown anyway? Why not evacuate the damn school! I don’t want my kids trapped in there! Ms. Taylor should be more worried about the unacceptable higher math courses at her school!

    • Oak Hill family

      Exactly. Newsworthy at Small is the lack of academic focus.

  • Chad

    My son who is in 8th grade at Small and was at the lockdown showed more wisdom than the adults in the school. He pointed out that someone attacking the school would be a student at the school and would also have participated in the drill. Wouldn’t they benefit from the knowledge gained from the simulation.

    • Carol

      Good point Chad! Your son is a smart guy! I think Small should be more focused on their teachers actually teaching!

  • Chad

    My son who is in 8th grade at Small and was at the lockdown showed more wisdom than the adults in the school. He pointed out that someone attacking the school would be a student at the school and would also have participated in the drill. Wouldn’t they benefit from the knowledge gained from the simulation.

  • AISD conducts these drills on Elementary schools as well. We were fortunate enough to miss the day that the lockdown drill happened at our kids’ elementary school as our kids were both out that day, but as a parent of a 4 year old and 6 year old, my wife and I have taken steps to ensure that something like a school shooting isn’t even a possibility in their minds. I just can’t believe that this is even being argued. We’re talking about shattering a child’s sense of security and, in younger kids, completely stripping away their innocence. I’m glad that Texas Monthly and the AAS are both covering this story, but I’d hope for someone to take a more hardline stance on this. If even one kid gets traumatized from a drill that is simulating something as awful as a school shooting, then that drill has no place in schools.

  • nativetexan

    This sounds like a bad experiment gone awry at the expense of the kids and teachers. What poor & warped judgment on behalf of Austin ISD and the middle school administration. I hope the school district is willing to pay for counseling for these students and teachers. Disgusted and disappointed to say the least. Austin ISD should take away a lesson from this, don’t play with people’s emotions to test your staff and students reactions…it’s not an episode of Jackass.

  • Tom Somyak

    The purpose of such a drill would be to practice the procedures that are in place. I see no advantage in not announcing the fact to everyone involved prior to it’s being carried out. It would have saved a lot of needless trauma, not to mention potential injuries.

  • Traci Anderson

    I’m a parent with one son at Small and one son that went through Small and I commend Amy Taylor and the entire staff for their efforts in preparing for a situation that may well occur. We like to think that school shootings are isolated incidents, that lockdown situations are rare. But, in the past 4 years my children have been involved in 3 lockdown incidents – none of them at Small – 2 of them in a single school year. The thing I find most interesting about the article in the Austin-American Statesman, and in this Texas Monthly article, is the fact that the brunt of the information presented was taken from a single source. My son had a completely different take on the entire situation – it impacted him so minutely that he never even mentioned it to me. I had to ask him, not for details, but for the very fact that it went down. We have to be prepared for the nightmare in the dark that we think is never coming. If this drill was able to show not only how safe our children are, but how to make them SAFER? What on earth is wrong with that?

    This drill was not unannounced – parents were aware of it beforehand – key staff at school (not solely administrators) knew that it was occurring, AISD security was involved in the planning. The students not knowing – again, what is wrong with that. Think back to every safety drill you’ve been involved in as a kid or even at work. You know about it beforehand – and you DON’T TAKE IT SERIOUSLY. You joke. You grab your purse even though you’re not supposed to. You mill around. You act like you’re in a drill, because you know it’s nothing.

    The point of the drill was to know how to prepare for the worst, and to learn how to fix what could be a danger in the event of an actual emergency. And now, if there is an ACTUAL situation, they will be.

  • mr_clark

    “Something bad might happen sometime somewhere!”, is the only “argument” for such drills…
    Mr Solomon: “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,[..]” But of course, it is a question with an easy answer: Yes, there are many other ways. The question should be, whether any ‘preparedness’ is really needed.

    Just a few numbers: according to the NCES, there are about 100 000 public schools in the US. There were about 120 attacks on schools since 1989, so 120 incidents in the last 25 years, or about 5 incidents a year. That alone would put one’s child at a risk of 20 000 : 1 of something would happen at her school every year. ON average there are about 180 school days a year, so that number increases to 3.6 Million to one as the chance of something happening at one’s child’s school every day. With an average of 1500 students at every school, and about five injured children in every school incident, this leaves a chance of about 1.1 Billion to one for one’s child to be injured.
    There are about 11 000 children under 15 injured every year in traffic accidents. If this would be destributed evenly between children at public schools that would give a 10:1 chance of a child from one’s childrens school being injured every year. With the numbers from above that’s an amazing 2.7 Million to one odds of one’s own child to be injured in traffic every school day, These are [much] higher odds then something happening at her school! With 10% percent fatal injuries [NHTSA numbers] that gives a chance of 27 Million to one for one’s child to be KILLED in a traffic accident every day. So the chances for one’s child to be killed in traffic is 40 times higher than the chance to be hurt at a school incident…

    I love my daughter very much, but this just shows how irrational the whole issue is. If I could teleport her to school and the number of attacks increased to 2000 a year [that’s 11 for every school day!] she would be as save as before.

  • Jessica Graffunder

    I thought I had posted this yesterday, but it didn’t post. I have thought a lot about the information in the mr_clark post, but didn’t have the statistics. Thanks for sharing those:

    I am glad to see CSMS parents commenting here. I know not everyone will agree with my understanding of this emergency drill or how drills should be handled. But, hopefully AISD can learn to have successful drills for all teachers and children involved. My husband and I are not debating that drills need to happen. Obviously, being prepared for the worst case scenarios in American schools is prudent, however; I must insist that teacher training, principals communication, and Austin ISD Police drill procedures be reexamined with consideration for the children involved. It is curious to me that in AISD administration interviews following my husband and I speaking up about our daughter’s experience, the superintendent focused on the principal’s need to communicate better and the principal spoke about teachers needing to follow procedures. I am not trying to place blame. I am trying to understand how the system failed so profoundly in some classrooms during Small’s drill that my 11-year-old daughter was told in front of a library full of hiding children, “If a bullet comes through this window, you will be shot.” There is not a doubt in my mind that a discussion needs to be had.

  • Not a Taylor Fan

    I have worked for this principal in the past and she is not a good leader. Does not surprise me that she did not prepare her staff or back them up when they acted human and some broke down. This is the same “leader” who does nothing to support her staff at Small and in many cases manages through intimidation. There are other schools that also do these procedures, they just have the courtesy to tell the staff so they can prepare to make sure the children feel safe.