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Lisa Belkin Headshot

School Lockdown Drills: Where Is The Line Between Preparing Our Kids And Terrifying Them?

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In Modesto, Calif., two gunmen roam a school campus, shooting students as they try to crawl to safety across the lawn. In Goose Creek, S.C., a gunmen enters an elementary school, kills a secretary and a custodian, wounds two students and the principal, all while yelling "I want to see my kids! Bang! Bang!"

The "bangs" were spoken because the shootings were pretend -- the latest lesson being taught to our children in their classrooms. "Lockdown drills," also known as "active shooter drills," are not new; schools have been conducting them regularly since the Columbine massacre in 1999. But they are getting a more realistic look since Sandy Hook, and one has to wonder whether that will make kids safer, or traumatize them further.

I am old enough to have memories of the "duck-and-cover" drills of decades ago, where we were taught that in the event of a nuclear attack we were to clasp our hands behind our necks, crawl under our desks, and close our eyes. Even as kindergarteners we knew this would be very little protection against an atom bomb, and the exercise gave me nightmares.

My children, in turn, remember the day an announcement over the PA led their teacher to lock the door, close the blinds, and move them all toward the furthest wall of the classroom. A bank had been held up a block away, and a very real gunman was being chased through the playground by a very real SWAT team. (Who knew our tiny town had a SWAT team?) That gave them nightmares.

Watching the Modesto drills on the "Today" show this morning, I thought of nuclear war and bank robbery. Of the line between preparing our children and terrifying them. Of the real risks quantified by the 128 school shootings since Columbine and the equally real risk of overreaction. "It was way too real," student Simone Chambliss told NBC.

Exactly.

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By all accounts, the teachers of Sandy Hook were well prepared and did the right thing. Some died while saving their students. As "Good Morning America" reported soon after the shootings:

'We practice it, and they knew what to do, and you just think about protecting the kids, and just doing the right thing,' library clerk Mary Ann Jacob said.

She said had been drilled to send the kids in the library to a back closet between book shelves, a plan developed in advance.

'You have to have a certain amount of fire drills, and evacuation drills, and a certain amount of lockdown drills,' she said. 'Kids know the routine, and the teachers know the routine, and everyone has a spot in the room where they are supposed to go to.'

Would they have been better prepared had their drills included police officers with real but unloaded guns and students lying in the hallways with theatrical painted wounds?

As officers led children from their classrooms at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, they told them to close their eyes so they would not be traumatized by the carnage around them. Why then do we want other children to see these things? Schools hold fire drills without starting actual fires, and tornado drills without blowing down the building. As I learned under my desk years ago, even when it is clearly pretend, it's frightening. And when the threat is a rampaging gunman, clearly pretend is more than scary enough.