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Code Red drills prep kids for school shootings. But is that TMI?

Recently, a viral video of a teacher singing to her classroom has terrified me.  It shows a kindergarten class in Monterrey, Mexico, and their teacher is leading them in cheery Barney songs – while lying facedown on the floor to avoid the windows, as there’s a shootout going on outside.

Closer to home, I recently received an email from my son’s kindergarten teacher saying the whole school would be having a “Code Red” drill – to prepare them for what would happen if a shooter came into the school.

It was a “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. When I was in kindergarten, we had nothing more than your garden-variety fire drills. “Code Red,” though, is more analogous to the “duck and cover” drills circa the Cuban Missile crisis – drills focused on a potentially imminent danger. “Code Red” drills are precautionary measures against what used to be unthinkable – school shooters. They’re not mandated by most states, but more and more schools are doing them.

Carla Holtzclaw of "Code Red Training," a company that advises schools on security, describes the three kinds of Code Red drills. One is police-designed, which she characterizes as “heightened anxiety training” and “very inappropriate for schools.”

“Drills that have children huddled under desks or in corner, loud banging on the classroom doors, yelling and loud noises are completely unacceptable,” Holtzclaw says. “All that does is to train children (and teachers) to be fearful and feel like victims, waiting for police to rescue them.”  ”

The second kind is what Holtzclaw calls the SWAT approach, which teaches victims to take the offensive with a potential shooter. Holtzclaw believes this should be a last-ditch approach.

The third kind of drill – a partnership with police procedures, but focused on the unique needs of kids and schools – is what Holtzclaw advocates. “Never frighten, but build confidence so that everyone can take pro-active measures to keep out of harm’s way while trained law enforcement can take care of a shooter,” she says.  

My son’s school seemed to go with the “don’t scare the crap out of the kids” approach, to its credit. My son’s kindergarten teacher told the kids about a “Code Red” drill in kindergarten terms. She told them the drill means that there is a "stranger" in school and that everyone has to get out of the halls, stay quiet, turn off the lights, stay away from doors or windows and sit on the ground.

I’m not one for fudging the truth with kids, generally; I try to toe the fine line between keeping the kids informed and freaking them out. In this case, I’ll admit it: I can’t handle the truth. "Stranger" is certainly a good-enough euphemism for “shooter” for me.

For a kindergartener, though, my son is pretty savvy. His questions were more self-centered.

“Yeah, I was really worried about the drill,” he told me afterwards. “What happens if I’m messenger [the kid who delivers notes to and from the office] and get locked out in the hall?”

“So wherever I am, if I hear the drill, I need to go to the nearest classroom and kick and pound on the door and scream until they let me in.” He paused. “And I’m NOT doing that.”

“So what do you do?”

He smiled. “I traded with Drew. Now I’m flag holder and HE’S messenger.”

So I’m glad the Code Red drill taught my son the Wall Street/prison/disaster axiom of “Save Yourself.” But what do you think? Are these drills too much for little kids – or unfortunately necessary in today’s world?


Jordana Horn is a TODAY Moms contributor, lawyer, journalist, writer, mother and expectant mother. Sometimes, she even sleeps.