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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Camden: Kids today face serious school drills

By Jim Camden
Published: September 16, 2023, 6:01am

While returning two moppets to their homes after an end-of-summer week with the grandparents, we got to discussing the future that loomed before them — the new school year.

The first day of school is never very serious, they said, with new rooms and new classmates, and, sometime in the first week, a drill. Maybe a fire drill. Maybe an earthquake drill. Maybe a lockdown. But not all at once. “We have a different drill about every month, grandpa,” said the older of the two, who is headed to fourth grade. On the coast, he added, they also have a tsunami drill.

The lockdown drills are scary, said the younger, headed to second grade. Someone bangs on the locked door, trying to get in. A friend of his was in a lockdown once in a cafeteria, said the older one. There were lots of windows. Someone outside had a knife. Details beyond that were sketchy, but the surety was deep, as is often the case with kids in single digits.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a 9-year-old’s version of an urban legend, were it not for the fact that real lockdowns have become ubiquitous. The previous week, two schools in Tacoma went into lockdown even without the students there, while teachers were in the buildings preparing for the start of classes. Two people had been shot dead at a nearby bus stop.

The grandkids asked what kind of drills we had back in “the old days.” Growing up in the Midwest, there were no earthquake drills because no one worried about earthquakes, I said. But we had tornado drills in which the class went single-file into the hallway and sat with backs against the wall and hands over head. No talking.

If you get picked up in the middle of a tornado, it will rip your head right off, the fourth-grader said with certainty. Don’t think so, I said, but it will almost certainly pick you up, swirl you around and throw you down hard somewhere else.

I refrained from describing the other drill that I and many students of the 1950s and 1960s practiced, the nuclear attack drills in which we were instructed to sit under our desks as a way to survive the blast. Some of my baby boom contemporaries liken the nuclear attack drills to today’s lockdown drills, doubting that today’s exercises in surviving a mad gunman stalking the halls will do no more harm to these young psyches than our time under the desks.

That ignores the fact that a kid’s knowledge of the consequences from nuclear attack in the middle of the last century was limited to about a third of the episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or drive-in movies in which irradiated giant ants impervious to bullets chased people through the desert.

Growing up on “The Wizard of Oz,” tornadoes were somewhat real to us. The teachers had no trouble maintaining quiet in the hallways during a tornado drill.

A nuclear attack drill, on the other hand, was an opportunity for mischief. Students with no inkling of the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction would kick balls of paper across the floors or toss paper airplanes down the aisles when the teacher was under her desk.

Now eligible for Social Security, those of a certain age can laugh at the foolishness or shake their heads at the uselessness of those old nuclear attack drills.

But based on the explanation of my two experts, lockdown drills are serious stuff. Possibly deadly serious. It’s unlikely today’s students will look back in the decades to come and laugh at them.