I’ve said it every year, and meant it every time.
This is the end of my sixth year as a teacher, and eighth year since I finished student teaching in 2014. That includes experience student teaching, long term subbing, or on staff in seven schools across three states—public, private, and charter. I’ve taught for two Christian denominations and three school districts. I’ve taught every grade from 7th to 12th. My youngest student was just 11. My oldest was 20. Every teaching situation felt very different—except in one way.
Each year, and to my recollection, in each school (even as a substitute) I’ve had to run through a slideshow explaining lockdown procedure to students. I’m very well prepared for this: my schools did simulations, trainings, shared statistics. “Twelve minutes,” they’ve said. “On average, active shooter situations are over in 12 minutes. You and your kids just have to do what it takes to survive that long.” Never mind that they would be the longest 12 minutes of your life, and perhaps, even your last.
No one ever agrees on the details. Lights on or off. Run or hide. Call 911 or put phones away so you’re not mistaken for the shooter. The truth is—you can’t plan to survive. Surviving or not, in so many ways, is out of our control.
So year after year, I have to look a group of young strangers in the eye who are trusting me with their minds and hearts. I have to watch the realization wash over them that they are now trusting this imperfect person before them with their lives. A million questions work their way across their faces. Does she look like she can disarm a shooter? Can I make it back from the bathroom before she has to lock the door? Will she try to take us through the hallways to safety? There are always the creative “what if” scenarios in which I calmly say, “Make a decision that leads you to your quickest, safest exit or place to shelter.” I repeat this—many times.
But the question that I get each year is always from one pragmatist who bravely asks, “Mrs. Knott—what would you do if the shooting started in your classroom?” I always try to look the questioner in the eye, and I try to keep my voice steady. And it always seems to end the same way. I’ve said it every year, and meant it every time.
I explain why it’s unlikely to happen to us: out of the hundreds of gun incidents at schools, statistically few involve active shooters. That’s still too many, but I say this more for myself than them.
“Yes, but what would you do?”
“ . . . And most of them are over in 12 minutes. I do not expect us to sit here idly. You see, in my training they taught me how to barricade with desks, latch the door with computer cords, arm students with textbooks, and prepare to stun the shooter in a frenzy.” I tell them about the hornet spray in my drawer. Some of them are impressed. But they press further.
“But what if it starts IN here? The shooter might be going through this training right now.”
And every year without fail, they need to know the same thing. I’ve said it every year, and meant it every time.
“Then I will need you to run to the quickest exit with your hands up as I try to stop the shooter.”
They pause. Then they press, “You’d die for us?”
“I would die for you.”
Lauren Tieri Knott is a social studies teacher in a public charter school in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. She and her husband, Evan, live in Bowie, Maryland.