What would your kids do in a dangerous situation?
Not everyone knows that I have a bachelor's degree in law and a graduate degree in criminal justice. Or that I ran a criminology-focused research firm in Oregon for a while, based on juvenile offenders with a variety of clients across a few states. I've read a lot about criminal offending, interviewed a ton of kids and their families and tried to apply some of that knowledge to my own life as I parent.
So when my oldest daughter entered kindergarten, we started talking about where the entry points were to her school. Where could she get in and out? What doors were locked, and how did those locks work? Did any windows open? If so, did she know how to open them? Where were good hiding places? What is an emergency at school, one where you would need to hide?
This wasn't a lecture — we both compared where we would go, which doors we would use, and then talked about which was the safest option. Often, she came up with doors, exits or hiding places I would never have considered that were better than my choices.
We continued to do this in her primary schools, starting in first grade. Every few months, I'd give her one more skill. Which exit is faster from your class? From the library? From the gym? Do these doors lock during school hours, or stay open? Close your eyes, and tell me how many exits you have from your primary classroom without looking. How many of the windows in the library can you open? Can you work the window locks?
Later on, we started talking about how to stay safe with gunfire in open places. We talked about which is better — hiding behind a wood closet door or hiding behind a metal desk. I expanded this beyond school; for example, while we were waiting in line for an Ariana Grande concert three years ago at the Moda Center in a field of wide-open concrete and no cover, I turned to both of the girls and said, in a half-joking way, "Two gunshots."
My then-8-year-old had been tracking her physical environment and immediately pointed at a low cement berm edging a planter and said, "Hide flat, on the belly, then crawl to the building." Her 5-year-old sister said, "Run as fast as I can to the parking garage because I'm so short I won't get hit and I'm really fast."
That was the end of it — they had a plan.
Yes, everyone turned to me in line like I was a total freak for asking my kids that question. Yes, I replayed that memory with my girls after the Las Vegas massacre.
We cover earthquakes and fires as well, not just violence. Basically, just any huge disruption where decisions have to be made fast, people are hurt and they have no other resources (no power, no phone, no adults).
We have talked about when to try and escape from a room versus taking shelter in place and how to handle a situation if there is no adult in the room. We have talked about whether they try to find each other in a building when they are not in the same room, or do they shelter in place and then flee by themselves, leaving their sister behind? Do they help their friends, or just ensure their own safety right away (this is a very tough discussion to have)?
The important thing is that we have talked about it. The girls have a baseline of knowledge so that, if a real emergency happened in their school setting, they would have somewhere to start thinking from. And I have a much better view of how each girl will react in an emergency.
This, of course, is in no way a guarantee that they will make the choice I would make. But it does mean that they will have a few options to start from.
The take-home from this? It's never too early to start talking physical safety with your kids in public places. This includes natural disasters, like earthquakes and fires, when there will be no electricity and they need to stay in one spot for eight or 12 hours. Don't assume the school is covering these discussions. Same thing for dance studios, gymnastics arenas, performing art stages, open soccer fields — how do you stay safe on your own without an adult during an emergency, no matter where you are?
And if there is an adult nearby? This may be more controversial, but I I'd still suggest giving your kids permission to use their own judgement for when to break school routine to be safe. Give them permission to act immediately if there is sudden danger at school, without waiting for a teacher to say it's an emergency. That permission from an adult might not come until it's too late.
Some safety experts will argue that kids need to stay where they belong so the school can find and rescue everyone. Personally, I think my kids can do a better job of saving themselves on their own, but that is just my own opinion on this point.
In any case, start talking to your kids tonight. They will listen to your input. It's a good discussion. And if you do it casually and with the right tone, it won't scare your kids. Children want to talk about how to be safe. In the wake of the tragedy in Florida, they are talking about this on the playground, so they may as well have adult input on which to base their emergency decisions.
I frame all of this as a one-in-a-million chance. My girls know that America is safer than ever. That crime is down in most places, compared to years ago. That during their lives, they will most likely never be the victims of any serious major crimes. That we have been all over the U.S. and never been victimized in any way (not even a car break-in).
But physical, environmental safety is like wearing a seat belt in a car. Even though we are most likely never going to get in a wreck, we are always safe and we always wear the seat belt. So even though it's not going to happen — where are the good hiding places in your classroom?
PJ Clark is a Lake Oswego resident and the mother of two young girls.