“Lockdown. Lockdown. Lockdown.” A woman on the public address system at my work blares in the intercom over my head. I’m already in my lockdown location – my boss’s office. I was helping her fix her iPhone when my feet suddenly became glued to the floor. She gets up and moves nimbly around me and moves to close the windows. To keep my hands from shaking, I do the same.
I don’t work in a school – however, my job is in the administrative building of a school district. We don’t house kids, but we still practice lockdown drills. On my second week, I was told that because I enter school buildings regularly, I’m at risk. On my first visit to a school building, my supervisor told me that I might experience a lockdown drill. What’s scarier to me, is that I might actually face an active shooter situation.
The Virginia Tech Massacre occurred on April 16, 2007. I was in high school, but we covered the events in my social studies class. The horrific act lived on in my mind as I went to college in 2009 and then became very real when I became a Resident Adviser (RA) in 2011.
For most major universities, being an RA means going to college about a month early and preparing for incoming students. You learn how to be a leader, how to do conflict resolution and how to respond to fire alarms caused by improperly making Easy Mac. You also learn how to respond to an active shooter situation.
I hadn’t realized how much every school shooting had impacted me, compared to my peers. However, when I was a junior in college, being taught how to properly respond to an active shooter situation, I learned just how seriously I’d been changed by the acts of a tyrant.
The police officer giving the training asked it plainly. “Who knows how to get out of this room if there’s an emergency?” No one raised their hand. After two minutes, I sheepishly raised mine.
“The walls are all windows – but there’s an interior lounge over there,” I pointed to a bar with a kitchen behind it. “The bathroom behind that pillar locks,” I pointed again. “If you clear that door, you can get to the elevator and pull the alarm to stop it, if you can’t there’s a stairwell the parking lot over there.”
The cop raised his eyebrows in surprise and moved on with the training. I think he commented on my observation skills, but the blood was roaring in my ears and I couldn’t hear him.
I’m in therapy now, for a host of problems, but one that has come up has been PTSD caused by mass-casualty situations. Since learning the vulnerability of schools, public spaces, and even the untrustworthiness of some first responders, I haven’t let down my guard. I never sit with my back to a doorway, and I plan escape routes in my head. I’m not sure when it started, – with Columbine, when I was 10, or Virginia Tech, when I was 16. Even though I’ve never been in a school shooting, the media coverage that is a constant attack on my image of safety left permanent damage.
But it started somewhere. Now, every time the news tells me how vulnerable we are in a world that worships gunpowder, I shirk further into the corners. Like the rest of the world when I watched the atrocities of Newtown, I thought this was over. It’s only gotten worse.
The drill ended – our friendly janitor opened the locked metal door we huddled behind, and we went back to our day. However, when the PA system chimed again, only minutes later, I froze. The same bored, annoyed voice rang through the halls, “lockdown drill ended, you may return to your desks.
However, the drill never ends, when it’s all you’ve ever known.
According to the K-12 Shooting Database, in the past 50 years, 202 people have lost their lives, and 454 were injured in elementary and high school shootings. The trend of violence in schools has risen asymptotically since 1970, reaching a fever pitch in the new Millenium. Colleges and Universities are no safer, with over 190 events resulting in 437 people being shot since between 2001 and 2016.
Most of the attacks were by young men who either had easy access to guns – either because they were unsecured by the attacker’s parents, or because of lax gun laws in the US, that allow the purchase of guns without a background check.
PTSD doesn’t have to come from going to war. It comes from trauma. Trauma can come from anything – even experiencing atrocities remotely. It can be inflated, by suffering through a media that feasts on fear, and helplessly watching an indifferent Congress turn it’s back to the facts and welcome a major purveyor of violence into its midst. In a world where kids have targets on their backs, we all suffer the same trauma together.