What happens when the things we do to protect our kids become the very things that scare them?
In response to a wave of school shootings across America in recent years, active shooter safety drills have become as common as basic fire drills. A whopping 95 percent of public schools today conduct them, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But what is intended to protect students in the case of an active shooter situation is causing anxiety and fear among both students and parents alike, and experts are asking whether they’re doing more harm than good.
A new report from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association suggests schools focus their efforts more on preventive measures and less on active shooter drills.
If they choose to continue with active shooter drills, the report recommends that schools give students ample warnings to prevent the element of surprise. They also suggest the drills be age-appropriate and not overly real to the point of scaring students.
When drills are the danger
While drills vary greatly from school to school, some go so far as to deploy actors pretending to be masked gunmen, force preschoolers to be confined to a “safe space” for extended periods, or opt not to tell students a drill is in progress at all until it’s over.
“What these drills can really do is potentially trigger either past trauma or trigger such a significant physiological reaction that it actually ends up scaring the individuals instead of better preparing them to respond in these kinds of situations,” Melissa Reeves, former president of the National Association of School Psychologists, told NPR last year.
Further complicating matters is recent research that suggests the drills don’t necessarily prevent deaths in active shooter situations. They can, however, cause students and teachers a great deal of stress. “When the little bell before an announcement happens, or when the fire alarm goes off, you can see this fear in students’ faces as they wonder, is this going to be a lockdown?” Ryan Pascal, a 17-year-old Los Angeles high school student, recently told NPR. “Is this a drill? What’s happening? There’s so much anxiety just by a little trigger like that.”
Miami-based family therapist Tania Paredes, Ph.D., cautions against desensitizing students with drills that resemble real-life scenarios. “It can have a numbing effect whereby kids are no longer fazed by the idea of an active shooter,” she says.
Keeping guns from falling into the wrong hands
Some experts believe the focus should be on getting the guns out of these shooter’s hands altogether, not in preparing students with live-action drama. “Guns should be more regulated so these types of situations happen less,” Dr. Paredes says.
The new report, a joint effort that includes two of the nation’s largest teachers unions, recommends the development of threat assessment programs that can better identify a potentially dangerous situation — and the interventions necessary to stop it — before a prospective shooter gets their hands on a gun. This includes background checks, secure gun storage laws, and general awareness campaigns. The report also suggests states earmark the funding necessary to implement these kinds of programs in lieu of active shooter drills.
In line with the new joint report, Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), a national nonprofit aimed at turning the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting into a movement to prevent gun violence, releases viral, award-winning annual PSAs that promote messages around prevention, rather than relying on reactive measures like shooter drills. They urge communities to use preventative programs like “Know the Signs,” which helps people recognize warning signs of potential threats so schools and families can intervene prior to violent acts occurring. Because 80 percent of school shooters tell someone about their plans prior to becoming a real threat, SHP asserts, “By focusing on early identification, action and intervention it is possible to prevent tragedies” — which would render these stressful drills obsolete.
Some school districts have already begun to focus on prevention and threat assessment. In Los Angeles, schools sent letters home to parents discussing the responsibilities of gun storage, asking them to read and sign it before returning the letters to the school.
If your child’s school has regular active shooter drills, experts say it’s important to talk to them about it to help diffuse fears and clear up any confusion. Don’t worry, there are ways to talk to about it without scaring them (or you). Our age-by-age guide can show you how.