Alicia Stenard wrote and Greg Matusic illustrated “The Elephant in the Room, A Lockdown story,”
that teaches children what do during a lockdown drill at their school. (Franchesca Caputo photo)
Alicia Stenard wrote and Greg Matusic illustrated “The Elephant in the Room, A Lockdown story,” that teaches children what do during a lockdown drill at their school. (Franchesca Caputo photo)

As a mother of four and a kindergarten teacher for nine years at Mater Christi School in Albany, Alicia Stenard was troubled when it came to drilling her young students on what to do if a “bad man” entered the building. 

She scoured the internet, only to find statistics on how these lockdown drills — an unfortunate and frightening necessity in our country — had a tendency to traumatize children, or at the very least, evoke feelings of anxiety when it came to their safety at school.

“I had so many conversations over the years with either family or other teachers or just friends and neighbors, where they would share stories with me about their child (being) involved with the lockdown drill. And then (the child) would be afraid to go to school, they would have separation anxiety with their family, they’d be afraid to go to sleep,” Stenard said.

With no luck finding an alternative, she decided to create her own. That is how the book “The Elephant in the Room, A Lockdown Story,” came to fruition. The tale is meant to instruct children during a crisis situation while cutting details that may not be age-appropriate.

“I think that we need to consider their developmental stage and also be very aware of the fact that as children, they’re basically powerless,” said Stenard, who now works at the Pastoral Center as a prevention educator in the Catholic School Office. “so we don’t want to add to that feeling of powerlessness and introduce an anxiety that they didn’t even know existed because we’re sharing too many details with them at this stage of their development.”

The book tells the tale of what to do during a lockdown drill, but spares the nightmarish “real” reasons behind such precautions. Instead, Stenard replaces the sound of gun shots with an abrupt popping of tires in front of an elementary school. The tires belong to a motley crew of animals from the circus, of course. From there, the animals march right into the school with a mission: Eat the children’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 
This is where the drill comes into action. 

As the children sit down, knees hugging their chest, the teacher says, “Let’s be very quiet and still, so the elephants won’t know we are here. We don’t want them to eat our peanut butter sandwiches.” In the end, the clowns round up the animals by luring them with a bag of peanuts out of the school. The lockdown drill is now over, and the children live happily ever after, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in hand. 

“Our schools pride themselves on tending to the holistic needs of the child and this book symbolizes that belief,” said Giovanni Virgiglio, diocesan chancellor and superintendent of schools. “What an incredibly timely and relevant resource for our educators, written by one of our educators, to convey what otherwise could be a sensitive and frightening topic. We are proud to supply each of our elementary school libraries with their very own copy!” 

Although only a quarter of shootings that involve three or more victims take place at schools, seldom do we hear about realistic live-shooter drills in nursing homes, places of worship or workplaces. Children, however, experience these drills from a young age. Throw in adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), ranging from experiencing a divorce, to living with a parent who suffers from rampant alcoholism or drug abuse, and the odds are suddenly stacked against young children when it comes to success.

According to a landmark study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, 32 percent of 13-to-18-year-olds have anxiety disorders, and 22 percent suffer from mental disorders that cause severe impairment or distress. Among those suffering from anxiety, the median age of onset is 6. 
“They might feel school is their escape. It’s their safe place to go in their routine, and now we’re pulling this out of our hats every couple of months,” Stenard said. “And I feel like we have so many children suffering with that and the anxiety, the effects of different adverse childhood experiences, let’s not add this on top of it.” 

The decisions by schools to immerse small children into a world full of grown-up fears isn’t new. Baby boomers experienced the trauma of “Bert the Turtle” in the Civil Defense film “Duck and Cover” from 1951 which talked about what to do in case of an atomic bomb blast. And while most parents agree that the drills are needed, Stenard’s book shows they don’t have to be extreme or terrifying. 

She brought her idea for the book to illustrator Greg Matusic, a parent who was at an open house at Mater Christi for his son, Jake, who was about to enter kindergarten at the time. What was supposed to be a 15-minute event soon lasted the whole day. Matusic found the right school for his son and someone who he would eventually collaborate with.  

“We just knew this was the place,” said Matusic of the school.

Being a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for the past seven years, Matusic offered Stenard guidance and insight. 
“Something I learned at my last job was kids want to see themselves represented in the book. So I made sure there was diverse characters in the book, skin tone, nationality. Not just for kids to be represented, I think that’s the main part, but for kids who aren’t those skin tones they see that there are other kids together,” Matusic said. 

Stenard added the power of prayer led her to the idea for the story after weeks of anticipating the scheduled drill. When the time came, she rang her bell, and as the small children surrounded her on the classroom’s colorful rug, she said one last prayer.

“I really asked God. I said, ‘God please send me an idea, send me an approach so I can help these children with this difficult thing that is really important, so I can make it as easy on them as I can’ ” Stenard said.

And then she started to calmly talk to the kids about animals and peanut-butter sandwiches.

“I’ve added some of the details since then (but) the story came out about the animals and how they were coming in to get the sandwiches, and they were hanging on the edge of their seat,” Stenard said. “When I practiced it, I went right from there. And they were all excited, in their cubbies. And I said, ‘Thank you, God,’ because what was excitement could have been this fear.”