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Don't Tell the Kids a Damn Thing About Newtown

NEW HAVEN — My wife rushed through the front door at one o’clock this afternoon. I was sitting on the sofa in our family room, and our four-year-old daughter, Ellie—still hyper from another morning at nursery school—raced toward me, preparing for a violent jump onto my lap. Our two-year-old, Klara, was seated to my left, flipping through a picture book. As I braced for Ellie’s impact, my wife and I exchanged rueful looks. We had both heard about the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, 25 miles away. “Go down the street,” she told me, quietly and deliberately, “and make sure they don’t tell Rebekah.”

Rebekah is our eldest daughter, five years old, a first-grader at the elementary school at the end of our block. A natural enthusiast, she has enjoyed most every day since she started there a year and a half ago. We have never feared for her safety at school—and this day was no different. As I threw on my coat and charged down the block to the principal’s office, it wasn’t to pick Rebekah up.

When I arrived, I saw another dad, a man a little older than me, waiting on a bench outside the principal’s office. We looked at each other, nodded. He was there to pick up his son or daughter, I could tell. The principal and assistant principal were in a meeting—I could guess what they were talking about—so I scribbled a note and left it with the secretary in the front office. “Please don’t tell the students anything about what happened today,” it read.

Then I set off to find Rebekah’s teacher; I knew they had recess and would be outside in the playground, and sure enough they were. I tapped Mrs. _________ on the shoulder, startling her. She was clearly on edge. “It’s okay,” I said. “Nothing wrong. I just wanted to make sure that you didn’t say anything to the kids about …  you know.”

“You should know me better than that!” she said, with good humor. Then, seriously, “I wouldn’t do that.”

“I should have figured,” I said. “It’s just that you never know when a grown-up thinks they’re being helpful, and …”

Rebekah spotted me—not an unusual occurrence during the school day. I often wave at her when my mid-day bicycle ride to the office coincides with her recess period. Her friends are used to saying, “Rebekah, your dad’s riding by!” Still, this was the first time I had stepped inside the playground during a school day.

“What are you doing here, Daddy?” she asked.

“Nothing, baby. Just saying hi to Mrs. _________.”

“Okay. Wait — don’t leave before you give me a hug!”

“I can’t give you a hug during the school day! I’ll get in trouble.”

Mrs. _________ laughed. “You’ll get in trouble if you don’t close the gate on the way out!” she said. I hugged Rebekah goodbye, and made sure to close the gate on my way out.

LATER ON, WHILE DRIVING DOWNTOWN, I was listening to coverage of the shootings on public radio. A woman caller—I can’t remember if she was a teacher or a mother—said that just last week she was in a Connecticut elementary school when it had an unannounced lockdown drill. She said that she didn’t think the children even knew what the drill was for, but it was “chilling.”

Right, the lockdown drills.

“Gone are the days,” The New York Times reported in 2008, “of the traditional fire drill, where students dutifully line up in hallways and proceed to the playground, then return a few minutes later. Now, in a ritual reminiscent of the 1950s, when students ducked under desks and covered their heads in anticipation of nuclear blasts, many schools are preparing for, among other emergencies, bomb threats, hazardous material spills, shelter-in-place preparation (in which students would use schools as shelters if a dirty bomb’s plume were to spread dangerously close) and armed, roaming sociopaths.”

And there are, of course, people making money from these drills. From the Times article: “Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a private company in Cleveland that counsels campuses on how to prepare for emergencies … sees a ‘tremendous lack of training’ nationally, particularly for school secretaries, bus drivers and other support staff.

“'Who’s going to take a bomb threat call? The secretary,’ he said. ‘And the first and last person a child sees many days is the bus driver. Who knows if there’s a suspicious person or object on campus? A custodian. Not only are teachers and administrators not trained, the support staff needs training as well.’”

That’s a lot of training. I went to Mr. Trump’s website, and indeed he is still in business, promising “peace of mind for school superintendents, school boards, principals, and their community partners on school safety and crisis preparedness issues.” No doubt today’s events in Newtown will increase demand for his services, for the “peace of mind” that his company provides. Maybe my daughter’s school will institute a regime of lockdown drills. Maybe it already has one—but I hope not.

Could lockdown drills have saved the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School? I have no idea. Indeed, I have no idea what kind of drilling those kindergartners, just four months into their school careers, may have got. Maybe the first drill was planned for January. But I doubt any drilling of 5- and 6-year-olds would have made a difference.

I know that Rebekah is not perfectly safe. I know that if a deranged gunman decided to mow down all the children in her kindergarten classroom, I couldn’t save her. And those parents and teachers in Newtown shouldn’t waste one second thinking they could have saved those kids and teachers. The world doesn’t work like that.

Here’s what we can control: as long as our children are alive, we can refuse to terrorize them with worst-case scenarios. We can decline to let a random act of violence goad us into treating Connecticut as if it were Gaza, Afghanistan, or Mali. I understand that there are parents in the world who have to teach their children about bomb shelters. But I don’t, not yet. My daughter is just five years old, and her school is as safe as we can make it without imprisoning ourselves in our own fear. My heart breaks for what happened 25 miles away; I’ve cried twice already today. But I’ve done it far from my children, who are still very young and, yes, innocent. So please: Don’t tell them a goddamned thing.