Jewish heads of school, like other agency directors, are known for asking the “paranoid” questions, so we can safeguard all people in our buildings and communities.
Often, a local Jewish Community Relations Council, Bureau of Jewish Education, federation, or Anti-Defamation League office will coordinate safety initiatives. Annual security meetings connect Jewish leaders with representatives from the regional FBI office and local law enforcement agencies to clarify procedures for various threats.
In 2012, less than a year before the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Connecticut. I was head of the Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School in Toronto, which is housed in a Jewish community center. The JCC director and I scheduled the school’s first shelter-in-place drill. (This term had universally replaced “lock-down drill”). We trained with the Toronto police department, who taught us how to train our employees and equip the school and JCC to respond to a gunman entering the school. In in our urban setting, we also learned how to handle the added potential threat of sniper fire from neighboring buildings.
We learned how to get teachers to identify hiding places away from hallway and window lines of sight. We learned to drill them repeatedly in locking classroom doors and covering windows and in silencing students and mobile phones. We determined, and then memorized, the announcement codes we would use for each threat scenario, and we learned what teachers should do if their students were on the rooftop playground or in the ballfield, library, hall or music room. We learned to instruct teachers to lock the doors separating the school wing from the JCC’s elevators, fire stairs and public toilets. Then we learned to insist that they exclude from school- or classroom-entry any stray students not locked in with them from the start. (This still gives me nightmares.)
I asked our TPD instructor what, as principal, my role was once the code went out. “If you’re in your office, lock your door, turn out the lights, grab the phone and hide under your desk,” he answered.
I was shocked. If I were hiding under my desk, how would I know whether everyone was locked down safely? He told me that my going into the hallway would heighten the danger for everyone. The SWAT team could mistake me for the shooter and kill me. I argued, but he prevailed. While I did as instructed, it never sat right with me.
Several years later, as the head of the Bet Shraga Hebrew Academy of the Capital District in Albany, I found myself at the annual security meeting led by the JCRC and BJE of the Jewish Federation of Northeastern NY. I listened closely as the FBI section head, the JCRC director, and several chiefs of police spoke. When it was time for Q & A, my hand shot up. I introduced myself by name and role, and then asked, “If I’m alone in my office when the alarm sounds, what should I do?”
All the answers I got then aligned with I was told in Toronto. I pushed at them: “I am the person most responsible for the safety of every other person in that building, and you’re telling me I should hide under my desk?” Yes, they said, using various words and nods to say the same thing. All except for one county sheriff. He boomed at me from across the room, “I know what you’re asking. Stay after.”
When that sheriff and I were alone, he said what I always knew to be true. “We won’t get there for 20 minutes, at best. So you find all the loose kids and stuff them in closets, bathroom stalls, or under your desk. Then you use anything you can get your hands on to stun, stop, or redirect the shooter. Bash him with a lamp or your shoe. Toss a baseball or an armful of files at him. Do absolutely anything and everything you can to knock him out or throw him off his stride. If you die, you die. That’s your job.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Why won’t anyone say this out loud?”
“Because we’re not allowed to tell the public to do our job,” he said.
“Even if you’re not there yet?”
“Correct. It’s bull—-t, but that is correct.”
So many school shootings later, I hope that those liability-centric instructions have changed. I would greatly prefer that an abundance of courageous members of Congress and state governments would alter gun laws and improve mental health services and coordination, so that no educator has to update his or her will before every school day. But without those changes, most school principals come to work willing to die to save the children and adults in our schools.
Now ask yourself, yet again and from this perspective, why so few great candidates enter the field of education, and why so many leave.
Rhonda Rosenheck, M. Ed, of Albany worked in Jewish education for 33 years; for 15 years she was in school leadership, including four years as head of the Schechter Regional High School in Teaneck. She’s now retired and writes humor, essays and poetry, volunteers in the community, and is working on a fresh translation of the Five Books of Moses. Her website is rhondarosenheck.com.