Lockdown At Univeristy of Texas

Oct 4, 2010 by

Sonam Shahani – My Cooperating Teacher (CT) pauses as she reads a book to the class. Hearing sirens outside she says, “Something bad is happening in the world today…” Disregarding the thought, she continues reading Dear Deer: A Book of Homophones as the kids giggle at the hare with no hair and the moose that eats mousse.

Minutes later the UT Elementary School principal enters the room to speak with my CT. In their hushed tones I overhear, “We’re on lockdown.” Lockdown? Is something happening in east Austin? I searched the teacher’s face for some hint of information but only saw a questioning look that mirrored my puzzlement. I brush the feeling away and ponder over how I will get to my finance classes if the elementary school is on lockdown. I’ll have to miss class, miss important information, gather notes later, explain myself to my professors…what an inconvenience. Little did I know how petty my concerns really were.

 

As my CT prepares to dismiss students to stations she asks me, “Do you get UT Emergency texts?” I wasn’t sure if I did, but I checked anyway. When I reach for my phone I notice that it’s blinking. Nine text messages, two from the University, several from friends. I read the UT Emergency text first: “Armed subject reported last seen at the Perry Castaneda Library. Details to follow.” I continue tapping the keys: “Armed subject last seen at the Perry Castaneda Library SHELTER IN PLACE. STAY WHERE YOU ARE AT. MORE INFORMATION TO FOLLOW.” I felt my heart beating faster and faster as I continue through my texts. In the background I hear my CT giving additional directions to students when I read my friend’s explicit message: “Shooting on 6th floor PCL. Armed suspect killed himself. No other injuries reported yet.”My breathing stops for a second as I glance at the teacher. The students disperse to their stations so I wave her over. I can’t speak, so I hold up my cell phone so she can read the message. “Oh my God.”

 

The next 30-45 minutes was a continuous scramble for information. With one eye on the students and the other on email and texts, the CT and I tried to piece together the events that were unfolding on our 40 Acre Campus. My CT discovers her email flooded with updates from the President of the University. I dial my parents to let them know that I’m safe and away from campus. In the rush to determine the location and status of my roommate and friends, all the while receiving information from my parents, friends, and CT, I look around the room at the eight-year-olds giggling over Reader’s Theatre. Is this real? Why my campus, my home away from home?

 

What would we tell the kids? I watch hesitantly as my CT handles the situation. “Boys and girls, we have to stay in the classroom today. Something is happening outside in Austin, but you are safe here. We’re going to do stations, watch a movie, and eat snack. If we can’t leave during lunch, we’ll eat more snacks!” The kids cheer at the thought of a movie and lunch in the classroom and emulate their teacher’s positive, optimistic, and hopeful vibe. Inside, I have questions, concerns, and fears. My mind is no longer in the classroom, but on campus, imaging what horrors students may have seen or experienced. My brain races with images mentioned on the news: AK-47, ski mask, suit-clad suspect. However, my CT’s strong demeanor and calm presence brings me back to reality in the classroom. After the initial shock, I slowly calm down.

 

Around lunchtime the UT Campus receives an all clear notification. Simultaneously, the little longhorns at UT Elementary are released from the classrooms to go about their day. I learned later that my peers at other schools in east Austin were not under a lockdown. In fact, they hardly knew about the situation. Because of UT Elementary School’s affiliation with UT, the little longhorns follow decisions mandated by the “big” UT. After PE, lunch, math, and science, the kids gather their backpacks and meet on the carpet to hear a book. A student struggling with the zipper on his backpack asks, “Ms. Shahani, what’s going on downtown?” Watching him zip up his backpack and put his chair away, I decide to follow the teacher’s lead: “I’m not sure about all the details. Maybe we will find out later.” Shaken to the core myself, how could I possibly explain anything to a child?

 

It is devastating that this tragedy happened on our campus and I grieve for the student’s family and friends. The event answered many questions I had about how teachers respond to tragedies that happen during the school day. What is appropriate to tell the students? How many details do you reveal? How do you manage your own feelings while maintaining a calm atmosphere in the classroom? Would the teacher’s actions be different if a national tragedy had occurred, such as 9/11? I asked my friends to recall the events of September 11th, when most of us were in middle school. Many recall that their principal forbade teachers to speak of the events or turn on the news. In contrast, my teachers spoke openly of the tragedy and promoted class discussion. Apparently there is no right answer.

 

So what is a teacher to do when bad things happen in the world?

 

 

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