Safety plans go out the window when real life happens, LA teachers say

By Jenna Kagel

Crosses bear the names of people who died during a recent shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, May 26, 2022. Photo by REUTERS/Marco Bello.

Americans are still reeling from the shooting deaths of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. It adds to the history of campus shootings in the U.S. — think Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and UC Santa Barbara. KCRW checks in with two local educators: Kristie Collette teaches third grade at Newcastle Elementary in Reseda, and Aviva Alvarez-Zakson teaches world history and ethnic studies at Hamilton High School in Castle Heights. 

Collette says some of her students have talked to her about the incident in Uvalde, while others haven’t. Either way, she says, “It's really, really hard to have a conversation where you can't promise them that you can keep them safe.”

It’s even more challenging, explains Collette, when teachers at Newcastle feel like they are seeing disconcerting warning signs in a particular student and they are alerting administration, but they aren’t getting guidance about how to proceed. She says, “The teachers are saying, ‘Look! Please! Something is going to happen.’ And no one is listening to us. And we don't know what to do.”

But even with a potential threat at her own school, Collette has never thought about leaving her job. “Because I love my job,” she says. “I love being in the classroom with my students. I would hate to leave. But I know a lot of people who are ready to go.” 

Anticipating a possible shooting, some schools simulate the event and run active shooter drills with students and staff. But even that might not be enough preparation for a shooting in real time. Collette found that some experts say you should get off campus if you can. 

“My classroom just happens to be right by a side gate,” says Collette. “And I know that's not district policy, but is that something that I would do? Are we running out the gate to somebody's house down the street?”

Hamilton High has run lockdown drills and other safety drills in the event of a shooting, explains Alvarez-Zakson. But she agrees with Collette. Schools can run emergency drills, but during an actual emergency, things may not go according to plan. She says, “If there was an emergency, I don't think our school systems are prepared, period. We have hundreds of thousands of students in our district.”

She adds, “Think of the reunification process after an earthquake or a major fire, [it] is very similar to what the reunification process would look like after some kind of extreme lockdown or active shooter incident. And if that isn't working for any degree, then it's not going to work in any emergency situation.” 

Nonetheless, Alvarez-Zakson has created her own system and plan. She uses phone trees and group chats with other teachers on campus to check in on each other, and to keep a line of communication going.

And similarly to Collette, she adds, “My classroom is not too far from a gate. Not a gate that I have a key to, not a gate that I could open, but a gate I could tell kids to jump over. Because that's where my head always goes. If somebody were to try to harm my campus, I will tell my students, ‘If you are physically able, go and jump over that fence right now.’”

Collette and the teachers at Newcastle also have their own contingency plan. She says, “It's not a school plan. As teachers, we have come up with, for our building, what [we are] going to do on our own.”

Alvarez-Zakson says, “Plans go out the window when real life happens. … We are numb from the perspective of people who would like to think we would have a plan in the moment. I think that what we need to think and talk about is how we respond to our students when they are experiencing the trauma of having witnessed that this happened somewhere, and that they're scared it will happen to them.”