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‘Mommy, I was scared we were going to be found.’ School lockdown drills giving kids stress dreams

Ella Bardwell played hide and seek with their nanny, Dunia Dunner as her twin brother, Sam Bardwell read a comic book.
Ella Bardwell played hide and seek with their nanny, Dunia Dunner as her twin brother, Sam Bardwell read a comic book. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

The twins wanted to play make-believe with their nanny. They love to pretend they’re unicorns or detectives working a case.

But on a recent day, Sam and Ella Bardwell, North Quincy first-graders, wanted to play something different, something they had learned at school. An alarm had blared over the intercom, and then their teachers had told them to run and hide and be completely quiet so no one could find them.

The nanny, Dunia Dunner, understood instantly.

“They wanted to play lockdown,” she said.

So many school shootings, so many deaths, so many drills, and now it’s come to this. Kids are playing “active shooter drill” the way children once played cops and robbers.

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But in this game, they’re playing themselves.

In the 2015-2016 school year, about 95 percent of public schools ran some sort of lockdown drill, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some drills are gentle. Kindergartners are told they are practicing what to do if a skunk barges into the building. Others are graphic, sometimes shockingly so. Doors are locked. Shades are pulled. Kids are taught to throw things at an intruder.

In Boxford, the regional middle and high schools have progressed over five years from not doing any drills to conducting lockdown drills that feature teachers and staff yelling, “I see him, he’s near room 256!” and “Run! Run!” as kids flee into the woods with their hands over their heads, said Kevin Lyons, superintendent of schools for the Masconomet Regional School District.

Ella Bardwell danced with herself as her twin brother, Sam Bardwell read a comic book.
Ella Bardwell danced with herself as her twin brother, Sam Bardwell read a comic book. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

But, Lyons emphasized, the school-day drills do not simulate gun shots. “We’re probably at the limit of how realistic we want to make it with students.”

Across the nation and the state, all of these drills are intended to save lives, but with scant research on their effectiveness, parents and others say one thing is clear: The anxiety they can inflict on some children is intruding on their play, their education, their sleep.

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Children as young as 5 or 6 are now having almost the identical stress dream, a dark version of the “unprepared for the final exam” dream common among adults.

Call it the “lockdown dream.”

In Dracut, Aurelia Heisey dreamed she couldn’t make herself be quiet when her kindergarten class hid in the closet.

“Mommy, I was scared we were going to be found,” the upset little girl told her mother, Sabrina, who spoke to the Globe.

Carrie Hamilton played tag with her twins, Ella and Sam Bardwell, 7, in their driveway.
Carrie Hamilton played tag with her twins, Ella and Sam Bardwell, 7, in their driveway. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

Another child, a fourth-grader in the Boston area, spent a recent night waking with successive nightmares, according to Dunner, who got a 2 a.m. call from the child’s upset baby sitter. The boy dreamed that the desk he and his classmates were hiding under fell and the assailant found them. He woke up distraught, fell back to sleep, and then dreamed that he and his friends ran out of things to throw at the intruder.

In 2014, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers issued a joint statement warning that while one of the primary goals of crisis preparedness is to develop a sense of empowerment and control, “armed assailant drills not conducted appropriately may cause physical and psychological harm to students, staff, and the overall learning environment.”

With millions of children subject to stress-inducing drills every year — and school shootings a horrible but relatively rare event — a backlash is building.

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“Is the trauma of training for a school shooter worth it?” the Hechinger Report, an education-focused publication, asked in 2018. “Do Schools’ Active-Shooter’ Drills Prepare or Frighten?” asked a 2017 story in Education Week.

In Massachusetts, the drills may be sending kids to the nurse’s office, said Jenny Gormley, a nurse educator, and president of Massachusetts School Nurse Organization.

“They may be one contributor to increased student anxiety presenting to school nurses with physical symptoms,” she e-mailed the Globe.

The drills are showing up in the children’s artwork, she said in a call. She mentioned a poem by a junior at Rockland High School, Katie Houde.

“Bulletproof Teen,” it’s called.

“Run, if you can/ Hide, if you can’t/ If neither, fight/ The fighting isn’t to save you/ It’s to save the next class, the next hall/ It’s to give them a couple more seconds/ To get there, to stop it/ I am a child, a teenager/ But, I am also a bulletproof vest/ A diversion/ A fighting chance for the others/ Hope in the form of distraction . . .”

The drills themselves don’t last long, but the anxiety they induce can leave a significant wake.

“My son can’t function after a drill — the rest of the day is a wash for him,” said a father of a Boston public school seventh-grader, requesting anonymity to respect his son’s privacy.

“They say kids his age understand it’s just a drill,” the father said. “But what kids understand is that kids die in school.”

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In some cases, kids participating in school drills have intentionally not been told that it’s only a drill, and hence think they are caught in the real thing — that the nightmare has arrived at their school.

In Virginia earlier this year, a distraught eighth-grader texted “I love you, Mom,” — a potential goodbye because she thought she was hiding from a real intruder.

Samuel Roth, a clinical psychologist in Newton, saw a patient who worried the situation might be real even when his school announced it was a drill.

“They tell you it’s a drill,” he said, “but would they really tell you if it wasn’t?”

At this point in our nation’s mass-shooting epidemic, we’ve reached a sad reality. Our children are more familiar with active shooter drills than are the adults. That’s what Belmont mother Cabell Eames thought when she was asked to lead a drill at her downtown law firm, and realized the best teacher was her daughter, who is 9.

“Mommy, the number one thing you have to remember is that you have to be very quiet,” the little girl instructed. “Even if you are crying, you cannot make a sound.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.