This was originally published as a Facebook piece and then republished in the Lake Oswego Review. The writing here is as it originally published on Facebook, the writing was edited in the version used by the Review (thank you, Gary Stein- your editing makes me a better writer!)
One more in the get real series. Not all of you know that I have a BA in law, or a graduate degree in criminal justice. Or that I ran a criminology focused research firm here in Oregon for a while, based on juvenile offending with a variety of clients across a few states (juvenile departments, state Youth Authorities, District Attorneys, etc.). I’ve read a lot about criminal offending, interviewed a ton of kids and their families and tried to apply some of that knowledge to my own life as I parent.
I’m gonna share what I started teaching my oldest when she entered Kindergarten. At that age, we started talking about where the entry points were to her building. Where could she get in and out? What doors were locked, and how did those locks work? Did any windows open? If so, did she know how to open them? Where were good hiding places? What is an emergency at school, one where you would need to hide? This isn’t a lecture format- we both compare where we would go, which doors we would use and then talk about which is the safest option. Often she come up with doors, exits or hiding places I would never consider that are better than my choices.
We then did this in her primary schools starting in first grade. Every few months I’d give her one more skill. Which exit is faster from your class? From the library? From the gym? Do these doors lock during school hours, or stay open? Close your eyes, and tell me how many exits you have from your primary classroom without looking. How many of the windows in the library can you open? Can you work the window locks?
Later on we started talking about how to stay safe with gunfire in open places. We talked about which is better- hiding behind a wood closet door or hiding behind a metal desk. I expanded this beyond school- for example, three years ago while we were waiting in line for the Arianne Grande concert at the Moda Center in a field of wide open concrete and no cover. I turned to both of the girls and said, in a half joking way, “Two gunshots”. My then 8 year old had been tracking her physical environment, and immediately pointed at a low cement berm edging a planter and said “Hide flat, on the belly, then crawl to the building”. The then 5 year old said “Run as fast as I can to the parking garage because I’m so short I won’t get hit and I’m really fast”. That was the end of it- they had a plan. Yes, everyone turned to me in line like I was a total freak for asking my kids that question. Yes, I replayed that memory with my girls after the Vegas massacre.
We cover earthquakes and fires as well, not just violence. Basically, just any huge disruption where decisions have to be made fast, people are hurt and they have no other resources (no power, no phone, no adults).
We have talked about when to try and escape from a room versus taking shelter in place and how to handle if there is no adult in the room, just a bunch of kids. We have talked about if they go get their sister in a building when they are not in the same room, or do they shelter in place solo or flee by themselves and leave their sister behind. Do they help their friends or just ensure their own safety right away (this is a very tough discussion to have). The important thing is we have talked about it. The girls have a baseline of knowledge so that, if an real emergency happened in their school setting, they have somewhere to start thinking from. And I have a much better view of how each girl will react in an emergency.
This, of course, is in no way a guarantee that they will make the choice I would make, but it does mean that they will have a few options to start from. We talk about it every other month or so, usually for a few minutes, and usually broached as “Hey, what would we do if there was an earthquake right now in the supermarket we are in? Where is a safe place to hide? Did you notice the emergency exit two aisles over?”. That’s it. Just a five minute discussion based on the location we are in at that time.
Anyway- the take home from this? It’s never too early to start talking physical safety with your kids in public places. This includes natural disasters, like earthquakes and fires where there will be no electricity and they need to stay in one spot for 8 or 12 hours. Don’t assume the school is covering these discussions. Same thing for dance studios, gymnastics arenas, performing art stages, open soccer fields- how do you stay safe on your own without an adult during an emergency in each location you are at?
Things you can do with your kids tonight? Ask your kid where the exits are from their classrooms. Ask your kid if the windows in their school open. Ask your kid where they would run to if their school became unsafe. Don’t assume, as a parent, that an adult is always with your kid at school to help them figure out emergency situations. Very often, kids are with other kids and no adult is present. Discuss when to make a break for it versus when to hide. There’s no right or wrong answer. Just broaching the topic and hearing your kid’s thinking is worthwhile. Your kid will listen to your input. It’s a good discussion. And if you do it casually and with the right tone, it won’t scare your kid. Trust me, the kids will hear about this tomorrow if they haven’t tonight. Your kids want to talk about how to be safe. Your kids are talking about this on the playground, and they may as well have adult input info on which to base their emergency decisions.
More controversial- Give your kid permission to use their own judgement for when to break school routine to be safe. Give your kid permission to act immediately (to hide, etc if there is sudden danger at school), without waiting for a teacher to say it’s an emergency. That permission from an adult might not come until it’s too late for your kid to get to safety as the adults will be focused on other things. Let your kid know it’s OK to NOT go to your third period classroom if the school is suddenly not safe and there is danger between you and your third period classroom. It’s a better choice to go to a good hiding place or to escape the school- that no one will be mad that you, as a kid, made the choice to be safe in an emergency. (This is not a universal rule- some safety people will argue that kids need to stay where they belong so the school can find and rescue everyone. Personally, I think my kids can do a better job of saving themselves on their own than waiting for the school to save them, but that is just my own opinion on this point.)
I frame all of this as a once in a million. My girls know that America is safer than ever. That crime is down in most places, compared to years ago. That, in their lives, they will most likely never be the victims of any serious major crimes. That we have been all over the US and never been victimized in any way (not even a car break in). But that physical, environmental safety is kinda like wearing a seat belt in a car. Even though we are most likely never going to get in a wreck, we are always safe and we always wear the seat belt. So even though it’s not going to happen, hey, where are the good hiding places in your classroom?
OK, that’s it for this yap session. Hug your family and send kindness into the universe.