Locked Down and Out in Rural Georgia

Michele is active on sev­er­al home­school­ing lists that I’m on as well. Some of her arti­cles have impressed me, espe­cial­ly the lit­er­ary math resource list. Most of the books she men­tioned are now on my wish list.

Per­son­al Voic­es: Locked Down and Out in Rur­al Georgia
By Lynn Hamil­ton, Alter­Net Jan­u­ary 2, 2004
A scratchy burst of sta­t­ic warns me that an announce­ment is about to burst in, unher­ald­ed, on my loudspeaker.“Attention, teach­ers. This is a lock down. Put your garbage cans in the hall out­side the room,” demands an anony­mous voice in a tone about as pleas­ant as that of a grack­le squawk.

It’s my first lock­down. As an Amer­i­can, I was, of course, brought up to be obe­di­ent to whichev­er voice threat­ens to be the ugli­est, so, with­out stop­ping to ask why I pick up the near­est waste can and put it out in the hall. My stu­dents, bet­ter versed in lock­down pro­to­col than I, are hand­ing anoth­er garbage pail, one I was pre­pared to over­look, up to the front of the class­room. I place that one out in the hall, too. I clamp down on the impulse to quip, “If you have any drugs or guns on you, for god’s sake, throw them in the waste bas­ket now.”

I try to resume teach­ing, but the next minute a man in a safe­ty blue shirt with weapons hang­ing off his sides has marched into my class­room and told all my stu­dents to get out in the hall and line up against the wall. They are told to take every­thing out of their pock­ets and hold it in their hands.

Sound like a max­i­mum-secu­ri­ty prison? A cadet acad­e­my in Ser­bia? Well, it’s not. This is all tak­ing place at Eff­in­g­ham Coun­ty High School, a pub­lic school in Spring­field, Geor­gia. Once stu­dents are lined up against the wall, the inspec­tor in safe­ty blue goes down the line, tak­ing wal­lets out of their hands and open­ing them up. Wal­lets in which stu­dents keep per­son­al items like mon­ey, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, and fam­i­ly pic­tures. Stu­dents are also told to raise their arms so that an air­port-style detec­tor can search them for heavy met­als. To com­plete the pic­ture of unwar­rant­ed search and seizure, a Ger­man Shep­herd is pac­ing the hall, sniff­ing. The total pro­ce­dure takes only about sev­en or eight minutes.

As the last of my twen­ty-nine stu­dents files back into the room, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly ready to do any­thing but learn, Safe­ty Blue heck­les me: “You get paid by the stu­dent?” Much has been said about the loss of civ­il rights in the after­math of Sep­tem­ber 11. Less is said about the after­math of the Columbine shoot­ings, an event that has rever­ber­at­ed through my coastal Geor­gia com­mu­ni­ty with appalling impli­ca­tions for civ­il lib­er­ties that no one seems pre­pared to question.

One of the scari­est things about my first lock­down was that, on return­ing to the class­room, only one stu­dent said some­thing like, “Yeah, that was a real­ly heinous vio­la­tion of my civ­il rights.” Anoth­er stu­dent point­ed out that lock­downs like this are use­less. When he got to school and saw all the police cars already there, he said to him­self, “Well, there’s going to be a lock­down.” If he’d had drugs or guns, he had ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to throw them out the win­dow or make a U‑turn and head back home. Oth­er stu­dents thought it was no big deal— a small price to pay for feel­ing safe. And, any­way, they’re used to it, now. They’re desen­si­tized. They’re desen­si­tized to lock­downs the way I’ve become desen­si­tized to air­port secu­ri­ty mea­sures, though those are much less inva­sive, prob­a­bly because the air­line indus­try is expect­ed to show a prof­it. Also because air­ports are under the close and con­stant scruti­ny of afflu­ent grown-ups who will tol­er­ate only so much rude­ness and delay in the name of pub­lic safety.

A quick romp through Lex­is Nex­is shows that oth­er com­mu­ni­ties are debat­ing how much inva­sion of pri­va­cy their stu­dents should endure in the name of pre­vent­ing a recur­rence of Columbine. Schools in Lords­burg, New Mex­i­co had to quit using drug dogs in what the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union argued were unrea­son­able search­es. The Lords­burg school sys­tem set­tled the mat­ter before it went to court. In Seat­tle, how­ev­er, the local ACLU decid­ed not to chal­lenge new pub­lic school search­es uti­liz­ing a labrador retriev­er. Anoth­er thing I found inter­est­ing is that the term “lock­down,” though wide­ly used in pub­lic schools across Amer­i­ca, means very dif­fer­ent things in dif­fer­ent regions. In the Colum­bus, Ohio area, “lock­down” refers to timed drills in which teach­ers herd stu­dents into their class­rooms, turn off the lights, and close blinds. The pur­pose of these drills is to be pre­pared in the case of an emer­gency like a vio­lent attack on the school, whether per­pe­trat­ed by stu­dents or terrorists.

A Man­as­sas, Mary­land news­pa­per described local schools as stag­ing a “lock­down” when the schools can­celed out­door activ­i­ties, locked the doors, and asked for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of any­one enter­ing the build­ings. This was a one-time event, imple­ment­ed at the advice of the local police in response to an actu­al threat. By con­trast, the Eff­in­g­ham Coun­ty lock­downs are con­duct­ed ran­dom­ly, i.e. with­out the demon­stra­ble cause that our law gen­er­al­ly requires to jus­ti­fy a search and an inva­sion of pri­va­cy. One thing that trou­bles me is that these lock­downs are not scru­ti­nized by the pub­lic at large, as are air­port secu­ri­ty mea­sures. I wor­ry about adults with self-esteem issues using our post-Columbine fear as an excuse to indulge in pow­er trips at stu­dents’ expense. I do under­stand that Columbine was an unthink­able tragedy, and one we should take some rea­son­able pre­cau­tions to pre­vent in the future. If we need met­al detec­tors in schools and we need stu­dents to walk through them five days of the week, then let’s install ’em. Nobody wants to say it these days, but free­dom walks hand in hand with risk. You can’t have absolute secu­ri­ty and the kind of free­dom our found­ing fathers believed in at the same time. Cer­tain­ly, some free­doms have to abridged in pub­lic schools. But the com­mu­ni­ty should be in a con­stant dia­log with schools about just how much free­dom can be with­drawn from stu­dents. And stu­dents should par­tic­i­pate in the dialogue.

I see no point in teach­ing stu­dents about Amer­i­ca’s lead­ing role in glob­al free­dom and civ­il rights when they aren’t wit­ness­ing any of that first­hand. How can we expect the next gen­er­a­tion to grow up eager to fight for free­dom when they haven’t tast­ed any?

Lynn Hamil­ton is the edi­tor of the Tybee News, a com­mu­ni­ty news­pa­per serv­ing coastal Geor­gia, and an occa­sion­al con­trib­u­tor to Alter­net. Con­tact her at tybeenews@earthlink.net.

Cyn is a proud Mommy & Mémé, professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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