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Stay calm. Be quiet. Hide in the corner. School lockdowns can bring trauma of their own | #schoolsaftey

Several credible threats of violence prompted K-12 school lockdowns from Miles City to Missoula during the academic year that ended in June. School lockdowns can help prevent injuries and death in an emergency, but they can also leave significant emotional impacts on some students.

Missoula’s Virginia Avery is home with her young daughters discussing something scary that happened during the school year.

“Anagail, do you know what a lockdown is,” Virginia asks.

“Yes,” Anagail replies.

Anagail is an 8-year-old second grader. Her big sister Ember is 10-years-old. Both attend Jeannette Rankin Elementary. It was one of several Missoula schools that practiced lockdowns this spring following a threat allegedly directed against a nearby high school.

“What happens during a lockdown,” Virginia asks.

“You have to hide in this corner, and you have to shut the curtains,” Anagail says.

“How do they want you to behave when you’re hiding and the curtains are shut?” Victoria asks.

“Calm,” Anagail emphasizes.

“And not make any noise,” her sister Ember adds.

Still, the girls tell their mom that those situations can make them feel “kind of scared.”

Virginia Avery is a school therapist. She serves students at Missoula’s Hellgate and Big Sky high schools. Since getting hired last winter she’s experienced two school lockdowns. Avery, a Navy veteran and former elite Hotshot wildland firefighter knows how to channel the stress that comes hand in glove with lockdowns. Her students, however, do not.

“We’re just hiding in this corner of my classroom,” Virginia says. “I’m trying to keep these children calm who are now not just experiencing this trauma of being in a situation where their life is threatened, those body feelings are making them remember all of their past traumas that they have felt their safety was jeopardized.”

Students in Montana and across the country have named themselves ‘the lockdown generation.’ The anxiety some feel over frequent lockdowns is an additional stressor to students who have faced growing anxiety in recent years.

“You talk to anybody who works in a school, they’re going to tell you that they have never seen such challenging behaviors,” says school psychology professor Franci Crepeau-Hobson.

Franci Crepeau-Hobson is a professor of school psychology at the University of Colorado, Denver. She also chairs the National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee.

“More kids are staying home because they don’t feel safe at school,” Crepeau-Hobson says.

Crepeau-Hobson says there’s a shortage of mental health professionals across the country.

In Montana, the number of high school students who reported feelings of depression over the last year is at a 30-year high.

Crepeau-Hobson says remote learning during the pandemic era disrupted not only student education — U.S. reading and math scores have plummeted to their lowest levels in decades – but their emotional and social development as well.

“And then you throw in the fact that we are seeing an increase in gun-related school violence and the way the media covers those events really leads to this sense that schools are not safe places,” Crepeau-Hobson says.

School shootings are rare, and Crepeau-Hobson says when lockdowns and drills are done correctly they’re effective and can add some reassurance of safety.

The state of Montana does not track how many school lockdowns occur annually, but Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, suspects they’re happening more frequently.

“We don’t necessarily have any statistical reports showing it, but we know that as school districts have increasingly turned their attention to threat assessment strategies that lockdowns have been one of the tools in the chest and used in order to make sure that we don’t have a credible threat to school and student safety and security.”

Melton says that while there are no easy answers to addressing the complicated issue of school violence, the Montana Legislature recently passed laws to give districts more flexibility in spending money for safety efforts.

This year, lawmakers passed a bill requiring an annual review of school safety plans.

“We haven’t quite got a handle on what we need to do to make sure that all kids feel supported and able to learn effectively, but that’s absolutely an increasing focus of the mission of our public schools,” he says.

Montana students concerned about their safety recently asked lawmakers to require state education officials to develop policies for firearms safety education. It failed to pass.

Professor of School Psychology Franci Crepeau-Hobson says districts can fortify their students’ physical safety with more metal detectors, locks, cameras and school resource officers, but she adds more attention should be directed towards students’ psychological health and safety.

“We also need to not have schools try and do it all by themselves,” Crepeau-Hobson says. “I mean, everybody has a role to play in preventing school violence. Everybody does.”

When the inevitable school threat happens, Missoula school therapist Virginia Avery encourages parents to check in with their kids with open, honest and low-pressure conversations.

“Are you scared of school shooters?” Virginia asks her daughters.

“Sometimes, because I know there’s a very slim chance it would happen at our school, plus people don’t really do it a lot,” they respond.

“But they do it sometimes,” Virginia responds.

“Yeah,” Anagail says.

“I love you,” her mom tells her.

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