Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sniper or Prankster? Bringing Up Kids In A World of Terror

We had our first lockdown experience today. For an hour, I was kept inside the school auditorium with about 200 other parents -- familiar faces I see everyday, coming to pick our kids up from school, just past 3 in the afternoon. The children were kept in their classrooms with their teachers.

I say "first" because I will not be surprised if there are similar experiences in the future, even as I hope not to have to go through another one.

I thought it was strangely quiet when I was walking down Whitehaven from Wisconsin Avenue towards the school. It was 3.20 pm. Normally, there would be groups of parents, mostly mums, gathered around exchanging parenting war stories or just pleasantries. It was even stranger, since it was a beautiful day in the leafy neighborhood in Georgetown. My instincts told me something was up but it didn't feel like anything could go wrong under that bright sunshine. In the next five minutes, the kids, in their red and navy uniforms, should be spilling out the door to their respective pickup spots. The younger children should have been in the little playground out front by now.

Something was not right. I checked my Blackberry again (it's my watch these days). Just then, one of Amon's classmates' mum came up to me. She too had just arrived and was puzzled. Then, we saw the principal and vice-principal standing at the door, waving to us and a few other parents to go inside.

"Are we in a lockdown?"

"Yes, we are. We received a phone call threatening to harm the children. We think it is likely a prank, but the police are investigating."

The whole situation was handled very well and with composure. Inside, parents gathered around in groups, chatting. But nobody was panicking or worried. The biggest concern everyone had was that they would get a parking ticket. Just write to parking enforcement and quote the police activity, I said. But yes, it would be a pain to have to go through the process.

Half an hour into the lockdown, some parents were starting to get annoyed, some worried. The first question - "Is it a bomb?" - was diffused very quickly. No, of course not, otherwise we would all be evacuated instead of locked down. Some people had seen the police vehicles outside. Everyone was still very patient and calm. The kids, we were told, weren't told of the situation. They were being kept blissfully engaged in activities in their classes. Throughout, we were told repeatedly it was likely a prank, but not what the threat (or prank) was about.

Finally, one hour later, we were told the children could be dismissed. They came to the auditorium in the most orderly manner, like it was just another assembly. Parents were called to pick up their kids by class, starting with the young ones in Nursery and Reception (3 to 5 year-olds).

We left by another exit, under police supervision. Once outside, I saw the number of police vehicles lining Wisconsin and the surrounding streets. It didn't feel right. Ariel was of course her usual happy, chirpy self. Amon, older and more sensitive, had picked up on the vibes.

"Just what exactly is going on, Mum?"

That was what I wanted to know too. I had tweeted, checked Twitter for various possible hashtags, but the information wasn't out there yet (which may have been a good thing if there was a sniper waiting...yes I found out much later in the evening that it was a sniper threat, but not from the school...from Twitter and TBD).

"We will talk about that in the car. Right now, I need both of you to be alert, hold my hand and walk as quickly as possible straight to the car. NO running, no playing, just pay attention and walk."

In the car on 35th, I saw more police vehicles and an ABC 7 news van and camera on sticks. The drive home was uneventful except for a little more traffic than usual, and this conversation that I decided I needed to have with the kids. I explained to them that someone had called the school threatening to harm them.

"Are you both scared?"

"No," they chorused. But they wanted to know why someone would do something like that.

"Some people are not right in the head, and they hurt other people because they're angry, or they want media attention. Some people are terrorists. Do you know what that means?"

"Yes. Terror means fear."(Amon)

"Right, so fear is their weapon. They threaten people to make us afraid of them, so they can be powerful."

"So if we're not afraid, then they would be vulnerable." (Amon)

"That's right! So the most important thing is not to be scared. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be careful and alert too."

"If he tried to hurt me I will ROAR at him."

OK, that's not really going to work. But Ariel got the spirit right. I was pleased with the kids, and myself, feeling like I had created a positive learning experience out of the situation.

At 6 pm, I emailed the principal, thanking him for a great job getting everyone out safe, and asking for more information. He emailed back saying he is working on the information for parents. Just after 6, the ABC 7 report was updated on I didn't see it, only because I left for dance class. I saw it at 10 pm, the minute I got home and sat down to trawl Twitter for updates. I still hadn't heard from the school. I sent the principal another email with the link.

I wasn't comfortable with the conclusion that it was purely a prank, unless the police had established that beyond doubt. Under most circumstances, I would be the last person to make a mountain out of a molehill. But we live in a post 9/11, post Columbine world now. I don't think I need to remind anyone about the DC area sniper. In my childhood, the probability of this being a prank would have been far greater than not. The reverse is now true for my kids.

Kids today can't grow up blissfully unaware the way we did. They should still be able to feel safe in school. But they also need to know that sometimes, bad things can happen even in safe places, and there are people out there who are "sick in the head" as Amon calls them.

"I feel really sick now," S, a friend and one of the locked down parents, said to me as we were leaving with the kids earlier.

It is indeed very ill -- all of it. A person really has to be sick in the head (and heart) to hurt children. It is really sick that such sick people has easy access to deadly weapons and common knowledge on how to create deadly weapons. It is even more sick that each and every sick act of this nature seem to encourage and perpetuate more copycat sick acts. And unfortunately, there is no cure for this disease. Despite all our technical advances, medical know-how and intellectual discourse, the human race has not discovered how to cure hatred and the need for bloodshed.

As of now, I still do not have any information from the school with regards to any conclusions from the police investigation and whether it would be safe to send my kids back to school in the morning. But then, what answers am I waiting for? I already know it. There are no answers. It almost doesn't matter if it was a sniper or prankster. We can't keep our children at home every day, living in fear. The deadliest weapon, more so than guns and bombs and crazies, is fear.

So I have to set aside my own fear, and simply trust that the kids will be fine when I drop them off at school tomorrow, and the day after, and the next. There is no instruction manual on bringing up kids in a world of terror. We're all learning as we go along.

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