Are Lockdown Drills Necessary?

Hi Folks! This reader talks about an issue that I am of two minds about. On the one hand, I truly believe — based on FBI statistics — that schools are extremely safe places and school shootings/terrorist attacks/mayhem are rarer than rare. On the other hand, tornadoes are pretty rare, too, and we had our share of those drills when I was a kid.

Of course, preparing for tornadoes (and fire) had a different social message to it. We were preparing for acts of God, not acts of unspeakable human depravity that just might be committed any day by anyone  – even a fellow student. So mostly, I think that these lockdowns are unnecessary and based on an excessively, nay, outrageously pessimistic view of our times.  And now let’s hear what you think. Here’s the letter that prompted such musings. – L 

Hi Lenore: I’ve just been reading Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature,” and he gives you a generous few paragraphs in his section on violence and children. … Lately I’ve been having a fun time banging my head against a wall at the school I work at, where lockdown drills are mandated twice a year.

Our theme for school improvement this year is “Critical Thinking,” and in the interest of just that, I questioned the usefulness of such drills in a general e-mail in the school’s public folder, using yourself and Pinker, among others, as sources.  I pointed out that there have been only ten incidences of gun violence in Canadian schools in the last hundred years, with most of the casualties resulting from two of them.

Not only did my colleagues not want to listen to my arguments, they actually became angry and resisted the whole process of public debate!  One colleague actually took issue with the statistics, suggesting that we could extrapolate a “trend” from the microscopically rare incidents I had enumerated, and which therefore supported the kind of drastic action our board seems to think makes sense.  I’m still kind of shocked that there should be so little regard for either fact or debate amongst educators.

I’m sure you must feel the same frustration I do.  School violence is actually WAY down.  Here’s an interesting excerpt from a Q&A session with Pinker on the Freakonomics website, which is salient:

Q: Other than writing best-selling books what can people do to help society at large resist the urge to think things are worse and worse and the world is less and less safe when this is manifestly not the case? –Joshua Northey

A: A small portion of the population is willing to be reasoned with, but when I tell my reasonably intelligent sister that “children are probably safer today than at any time in human history,” she scoffs at me as if I am telling her that cigarettes have nothing to do with lung cancer. She is so dismissive she won’t even read the few things I have given her about it, and her attitude is not uncommon.

One necessity is greater statistical literacy among the population and especially among journalists. People need to think in terms of proportions rather than salient examples, to appreciate orders of magnitudes (ten thousand deaths versus ten million deaths), to distinguish random blips from systematic trends, and to be aware of—and thereby discount—their own cognitive biases. When Harvard revamped its undergraduate curriculum a few years ago, I lobbied (unsuccessfully) for a statistical and analytic thinking requirement.

Also, journalists have to rethink their policy of featuring only gory events and terrifying threats. Tensions that fizzle out (e.g, remember how a decade ago India and Pakistan were allegedly on the verge of nuclear war?), wars that sputter to a halt, “war-torn” countries that are no longer torn by war, and other happy events and non-events should be just as newsworthy as things that go bang.

I have been doing as Pinker tried to do, and arguing for a greater emphasis in on analytical thinking in the curriculum, as I’m more and more convinced that universal cognitive biases such as the Availability Heuristic and the Confirmation Bias, among others, ought to be taught formally, so people are at least aware of them.  As Northrop Frye told us, thinking is a skill, not an innate ability (but my students react angrily to that assertion as well!) — A High School Teacher to the North

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