Personal Voices: Locked Down and Out in Rural Georgia

Human Rights

A scratchy burst of static warns me that an announcement is about to burst in, unheralded, on my loud speaker.

"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 lock down. As an American I was, of course, brought up to be obedient to which ever 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 lock down protocol than I, are handing another garbage pail, one I was preparing 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 which 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 lock down 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 lock downs 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 lock down." 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 lock downs 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 cancelled 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 first hand. 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

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