Illustration by Shonagh Rae of Code Red drills in schools
© Shonagh Rae

Last week, my daughters experienced a very modern American childhood ritual. The teachers at their Manhattan school suddenly locked the classroom door and told everyone to hide under their desks, or inside the cupboard. Then somebody walked along the corridor outside, banging on the doors in a menacing manner, shouting, “Let me in.”

The teacher kept the door shut and told the children to silently crouch down, as part of a so-called Code Red drill. “It was very scary,” one of my daughters observed. “But this is what we have to do if a stranger comes into school.”

Welcome to one of the quirks of America in 2014. When I was a child at a British school 30 years ago, I often took part in fire drills, to prepare for the remote risk of a fire. But these days, American schools are not just conducting fire evacuations. In the wake of recent attacks on educational establishments – such as the tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut in late 2012, or the attacks on a California college last week – they are actively drilling children on how to respond to violent attacks as well.

These drills vary across the country. In some American schools, teachers have decided that they want “realistic” drills, so children huddle in places such as the gym while somebody fires a blank gun. In other establishments, teachers keep the threat relatively vague. Meanwhile, in the trendier parts of Brooklyn, the schools are so worried about psychological distress that they offer counselling to pupils after the drills.

These Code Red or “Lockdown” drills are spreading. And entrepreneurs are jumping into the fray: companies now offer Code Red school training and inventors have filed patents for devices, such as mobile bookcases that can be pushed across a door to withstand bullets.

Is this sensible? When my daughters first told me – nervously – about their Code Red drills, I felt distinctly ambivalent. As a parent, it is difficult to criticise measures that might protect a child from a risk, particularly given tragedies such as the Newtown attack. But having grown up in the UK, where guns are rare, it also seems shocking that a society might start normalising a school gun attack by actively preparing for it. 

And if you dig into the statistics, it is difficult to avoid feeling a little cynical about the whole issue. According to the FBI, the chance of a student dying in a violent attack at school is (thankfully) just one in a million today. And while the frequency of attacks has increased in the past two decades, such incidents are not new.

What is really interesting, though, is that the FBI data suggest that 95 per cent of attacks are carried out not by “strangers” but by disenchanted students (as in the California attack last week). And these are often explicitly copying other attacks. “School shootings are typically well-publicised, sensationalised events that can trigger an increase in similar acts for roughly days or weeks after the attack,” the FBI observes. “Many offenders engaged in repetitive viewing of violent media and were often fascinated with previous school shootings.”

This implies that hiding from random strangers is not the key issue. The best way for colleges and schools to deal with the risk is to teach students to spot stress among their classmates. It also implies that the best way to deter attacks might be to downplay the risk of school shootings rather than dramatise them (or normalise the climate of fear by conducting Code Red drills).

Don’t bet on that happening soon; or not in a world where the media is free, lawyers are endemic and parents (like me) are instinctively keen to reduce risks to their children. Perhaps we should simply see Code Red drills as a sign of the times – for both bad and good. Seventy-five years ago, European children were huddling under their desks to shelter from all-too-real bombs; and in the 1950s and 1960s, schoolchildren were crouching low in practice drills to prepare for a nuclear attack. Even in the late 1970s, when I went to school, we still lived with a vague, endemic concern about nuclear holocaust – and a very real fear of IRA bomb attacks.

But the good news today is that – thankfully – children in the west are no longer hiding from real bombs. Nor are they fretting about that nuclear risk (except, perhaps, in places such as Israel). And while gun violence blights some poor US neighbourhoods, most middle-class children have safe lives, by historical standards. Which, of course, is precisely why the appearance of Code Red drills makes people like me blink in surprise – and wonder what my children’s children will think of this. And will they still be hiding under the desk in another 50 years? And if so, from what type of new threat?

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