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Shawn Vestal: Shooting reports were a hoax, but the terror of that hellish half-hour was real

Law enforcement swarm Lewis and Clark High School Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, after a report of a school shooting later determined to be hoax. Police said they had swept the entire school, which is in lockdown, by 12:15 p.m. and found no indication of a shooting. They are remaining on scene.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

They practice for it now, our children, as they practice for a volleyball game or the school play or the holiday concert.

Lock the doors. Turn off the lights. Sit against the wall.

If you want to be good at something, after all, you must practice. If you want to be good at something – like dribbling with your left hand or playing the trumpet or not getting shot in school – you have to put in the work.

Stay away from the windows. Be very quiet. Hold your backpack in front of you.

You have to repeat something 10,000 times, we are told, if you want to become an expert at it. Start early and do it over and over. And because we want our kids to become experts at not getting shot, it’s part of the curriculum now, a line of educational instruction starting when students are 5 years old, working on the alphabet and numbers and not getting shot in school.

Barricade the doors with the classroom furniture. If you’re in the bathroom, lift up your feet and stay silent in the stall. Remain calm. It’s very important, when trying not to get shot in school, to remain calm while you’re hiding in the closet or lifting up your feet in the bathroom stall.

All over Spokane last Friday – and all over the wider region as well – students put their practice to good use, as false reports of school shootings were called in. The first reports here went to police, claiming there had been a shooting at Lewis and Clark High School.

Many students and staff in the school saw police responding – rolling up outside, coming into the lunchroom and hallways, weapons at the ready – before they were aware of anything going on. Others heard the announcement over the loudspeaker.

Not a drill. Not practice.

Word leaked out through the media. It leaked out one text at a time. Parents heard it, passed around, wondered what to believe.

Shots fired in the cafeteria, it was said.

Six down, it was said.

Everyone wondering whether it was true, and nobody wondering – not for a second – whether it could be.

It was terrifying. For students, for teachers, for parents. Terrifying. My son is a sophomore at LC, and he was home sick on Friday, and I was relieved in a way that made me feel awful – but terrified, nevertheless.

I know a lot of kids in that school. Some of them I’ve known since they were little children, since preschool and kindergarten and third grade, since Hoopfest and freshman football, since holiday concerts and the aloha lunch, all these little kids grown into fledglings, ready to fly, going to their first formal dances and shaving the fuzz from their upper lips and putting on formal dresses and calling their moms “bruh” and learning to drive – all of them in that school, on lockdown, believing the moment they’d been practicing for had arrived.

In that hellish half-hour between hearing there was a shooting and hearing there was not a shooting, it was as real as can be.

Police officers stormed into the school. Students fled the lunch room in a panic, ran away from school altogether, waiting under the freeway overpass to find out what was happening. Parents rushed to the school. Teachers frantically locked their doors, tried to clear the halls.

Here it was.

It is 10 years today since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the shooting that sealed our nation’s wicked contract with gun zealotry. The one that seemed – though there had been others – like it might make a difference, and the one that broke something in our collective will when it didn’t.

School shootings are more and more common, though it must also be said that they are not as common as other forms of run-of-the-mill gun violence in a nation so steeped in gun violence that we are numb to it.

Last week’s hoaxes were a form of gun violence, as well. Someone with a sick or stupid sense of humor, or an anti-social hostility, was able to weaponize what we all know to be utterly plausible: that someone would take a gun into a school and shoot innocents.

It happens all the time. You might argue that it happens less than other forms of gun violence, and that would be true, and yet it is no exaggeration to say that in America, it happens all the time. Forty-eight times just this year. Scores killed. Hundreds wounded. It happened at Freeman High. It happened before at LC, back in 2003.

The constant shadow of these shootings is a violence we collectively inflict on young people. It is a measure of our shared failure, that we put children through constant preparation for a human-caused disaster we won’t do anything else about. For all practical purposes, gun violence has become an immutable, elemental force of American life – earth, water, air, fire, gun violence.

Our children prepare for it the way we prepare for natural disasters, with drills, with planning, with practice.

Memorize your lines. Practice your scales on the piano. Solve for X.

Try not to get shot.

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