Dear America: Kids doing active-shooter drills is not normal.
Image by Tatiana Cardenas/Upworthy.

As thousands across the nation prepare to take to the streets on March 24, 2018, for The March for Our Lives, we're taking a look at some of the root causes, long-lasting effects, and approaches to solving the gun violence epidemic in America. We'll have a new installment every day this week.

I was teaching in a high school classroom when the Columbine shooting happened.

In between periods, a student rushed into my room and turned on the television. As other students shuffled in, they caught the scene on TV and stopped in their tracks.


Together we gaped silently at aerial footage of teens pouring out of their school, covered in their classmates' blood. News reporters struggled to offer details about the shooter or shooters, still unclear if the carnage had ended. Still unsure of the body count.

I looked around at my 15- and 16-year-old students, their eyes wide with a mix of shock and fear. Even the goofy class clown stared somberly at the screen. I considered whether it was prudent to let them see all of this, but the only difference between that high school and ours was geography. Those bloodied students could have been my students. They knew it, and I knew it.

It seems commonplace now, but that was a feeling I'd never felt as a teacher before. And I'd only felt something similar once as a kid.

Tom Mauser walks along a wall at the Columbine High School Memorial; his son Daniel was one of students killed in the Columbine shooting. Photo by Don Emmert/Getty Images.

I remember when I was little, sitting huddled in a ball under my desk, imagining the classroom around me exploding.

It was the early 1980s. I must have been 6 or 7. My class was doing a nuclear-blast preparation drill, a hallmark of the Cold War era in which I was born. I remember staring at the thin metal legs of my desk, wondering how they were supposed to protect me from a bomb going off.

Nuclear annihilation — not being gunned down in school — was the big concern of my childhood. Such duck-and-cover drills disappeared by my middle elementary years, so the threat felt short-lived. Of course, a nuclear blast is always a terrifying thought, but somehow, I just knew it wasn't likely to happen.

I imagined it, though. And the imagining alone shook me as a young child. Sometimes I look back and wonder how Americans lived like that for so long.

A kindergartener in Hawaii hides under a desk during a lockdown drill. Photo via Phil Mislinski/Getty Images.

Kids in high school now have been doing active-shooter lockdown drills their entire childhoods.

The year after Columbine, my husband and I started our family, and I left teaching. I chose to homeschool my kids, and though lockdowns weren't part of that decision, the lack of active-shooter drills has been a significant perk of homeschooling.

Unlike nuclear preparation drills, active-shooter drills are meant to prepare kids for something they know has happened multiple times. They've heard the news stories. Some kids have been through the real thing themselves.

I try to imagine it — my sweet 9-year-old boy huddled in a closet with 20 of his classmates, forced into unnatural silence as they wait for the sound of a would-be shooter trying to enter their locked classroom. I can see his face, the very real fear in his eyes. I can honestly feel his racing heartbeat.

It guts me just to think about it.

An elementary school teacher (who requested anonymity because the internet is ridiculous and she's received death threats) posted a description of a recent active-shooter drill in her classroom. The post has been shared close to 200,000 times and for good reason. It's a simple description of an unfathomable reality.

"Today in school we practiced our active shooter lockdown. One of my first graders was scared and I had to hold him. Today is his birthday. He kept whispering 'When will it be over?' into my ear. I kept responding 'Soon' as I rocked him and tried to keep his birthday crown from stabbing me.

I had a mix of 1-5 graders in my classroom because we have a million tests that need to be taken. My fifth grader patted the back of the 2nd grader huddled next to him under a table. A 3rd grade girl cried silently and clutched the hand of her friend. The rest of the kids sat quietly (casket quiet) and stared aimlessly in the dark.

As the 'intruder' tried to break into our room twice, several of them jumped, but remained silently. The 1st grader in my lap began to pant and his heart was beating out of his chest, but he didn't make a peep."



Image via Facebook, used with permission.

Seriously. These are babies we are putting through this. (Well, not literal babies, but still.)

And these drills can be even more terrifying than you might imagine.

At a high school in Anchorage, Alaska, an officer used the sound of real gunfire — blanks shot from a real gun — during active-shooter drills. The idea was that kids would learn what actual gunfire sounds like so they can act quickly when they hear it.

"We don't want to scare them," the principal, Sam Spinella, told CNN affiliate KTVA. "We want this to become as close to reality as possible."

I am dumbfounded. Those two sentences make zero sense together. We're not talking about a police training academy here — we're talking about an average day in high school. The reality they are trying to prepare them for is scary — how could a preparation "as close to reality as possible" not be?

A recent article in The Atlantic examined the psychological effects of active-shooter drills on kids. Surprisingly, not a lot of research has been done on the subject. All we really have are reports of young adults who grew up with them.

One interviewee described a memory of his classmate coughing during a lockdown drill when he was 12. Their teacher reacted by telling the class that in a real shooter situation, they'd all be dead now.

Yeah, probably not the best way to handle that.

But what is the best way to prepare children for the possibility of a gunman trying to kill their classmates, their favorite teacher, their best friend?

We want kids to feel safe and secure. We don't want to scare kids as we prepare them for something that is undeniably scary. But is it smart to scare them a little bit in order for them to understand the seriousness of the drill? And if kids aren't scared at all — if they are totally unfazed by active-shooter drills — how can we justify them being so desensitized?

Ugh. This is not normal. This should never feel normal.

And yet, this is normal. In fact, some people tell me they feel comforted by the preparation.

I talked to a handful of teens and young adults who grew up with lockdown drills. One described a series of bomb threats at her high school, which she said were scary at first, but eventually became a "boy who cried wolf" situation. Another described intruder drills as simply preparing for the unexpected, not much different than an earthquake or tornado drill.

One high schooler, Joe Burke of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, told me about the first lockdown drill he remembers in the fifth grade. He and his classmates huddled under computer desks along the wall, knees hugged to their chests, with the lights off and door locked:

"When we were sitting under the desks, I had a slight bit of doubt in the idea. To my fifth-grade self, it didn't seem like the best idea to just be hiding if someone were to come in and try and hurt us. It would only take a few seconds of searching to find 25-plus kids and a teacher all cramped under those tables. ... At the time, I automatically assumed that the adults knew more than we did. I figured that we were much safer than I realize we actually were, in retrospect."

Burke said the new ALICE training his high school has implemented has made him feel better prepared and is "a massive step in the right direction." (ALICE is a for-profit training program that has been implemented in schools across the country. Here's an interesting analysis of the praise and criticism of it.)

Joe Burke spoke at his high school's walkout on March 14, 2018. Photo via Christine Burke, used with permission.

Joe's mother, Christine Burke, said that she has made it a point to talk to her kids about active shooter situations in detail:

"After Parkland, I sat with my 15-year-old son and showed him the footage of the shooting inside the building. We talked about how the smoke from an AR-15 would disorient his way out, that the gun would be loud, that screaming classmates would make it hard to hear instructions. We talked about how his phone need not be a priority (no filming the scene, no taking pictures) but that he should use it as a means of communication only if he could. And we talked about how the ALICE training would feel in a real situation. That conversation with my son chilled me to my bones because I realized that this is the world we live in now. I have to talk to my son about his algebra grade and about how loud an AR-15 sounds when fired in a classroom."

Christine, like many parents, finds herself navigating surreal waters. We have accepted the inevitability of school shootings to the point where we actively prepare our kids for them.

Generally speaking, preparedness is good. Preparedness is smart.

And yet, how can we accept that this is the reality for children in America? Parents across the country constantly say to themselves, "We shouldn't have to do this. Our kids shouldn't have to do this." And yet, they do.

Christine Burke (left) and her friend Jen were the only two parents who joined her son's school walkout for National School Walkout on March 14, 2018. Photo via Christine Burke, used with permission.

Is this really the price we have to pay for freedom?

We're supposed to be a fantastic, developed country, aren't we? We pride ourselves on being a "shining city on a hill" a leader among nations, a beacon of freedom to all people.

There is no official war happening on American soil. We are not a country experiencing armed conflict or revolution or insurrection. And yet we live as if we are.

People in other countries look at our mass shootings and what we've attempted to do about them and think we are out of our ever-loving minds. I'm right there with them. As a former teacher and current homeschool parent, I feel like I'm peering in from the outside with my jaw to the floor at what we've accepted as normal for our children.

I'm a fan of the U.S. Constitution and don't take changes to it lightly, but maybe it's time to accept that the Second Amendment has not actually protected our freedoms the way it was designed to. We are not a free people when our children have to hide in closets and listen for gunfire as they imagine themselves the next victims of a mass-murdering gunman during math class.

This is not normal. This should never feel normal.

Kids who have repeatedly and systematically prepared for carnage in their classrooms are taking to the streets, to the podium, to the media — and soon to the polls — in a way we haven't seen in decades.

It's easy to see why. These teens have spent their childhoods watching the adults in charge respond to the mass murder of children by simply preparing for more of it. And they're done.

I'm unbelievably proud of the way these young people are organizing, saying #NeverAgain and pushing for effective gun legislation. Their efforts have convinced the governor of Florida to break with the National Rifle Association and sign a sweeping gun control bill. (Though not perfect, it's a big step for the "Gunshine State.") Companies feeling the pressure and momentum have broken ties with the NRA as well.

I can't help but note how these kids' successes highlight previous generations' failure on this issue. The time for taking real action was long before Parkland, Sandy Hook, or even Columbine. But I feel the sea change coming.

These young activists give me hope that maybe future generations will look back in wonder at how we lived like this for so long.

For more of our look at America's gun violence epidemic, check out other stories in this series:

And see our coverage of to-the-heart speeches and outstanding protest signs from the March for Our Lives on March 24, 2018.

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

Keep Reading Show less

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."