Experts Worry Active Shooter Drills In Schools Could Be Traumatic For Students

Nov 10, 2019
Originally published on November 10, 2019 3:50 pm

A regular drumbeat of mass shootings in the U.S., both inside schools and out, has ramped up pressure on education and law enforcement officials to do all they can to prevent the next attack.

Close to all public schools in the U.S. conducted some kind of lockdown drill in 2015-2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Last year, 57% of teens told researchers they worry about a shooting happening at their school. A slightly higher percentage of parents of teenagers, 63%, fear a shooting at their child's school, the Pew Research Center found.

But many experts and parents are asking if the drills, some complete with simulated gunfire, are doing more harm than good.

Despite high-profile media coverage, school shootings with multiple victims are still rare. The overall number of students killed in shootings at schools is down from the early 1990s to about 0.15 per million in 2014-2015, according to researchers at Northeastern University. One Harvard instructor estimated the likelihood of a public school student being killed by a gun in school at about 1 in 614 million.

Melissa Reeves, a professor at Winthrop University and former president of the National Association of School Psychologists, talked with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about changes in how school shooting drills are carried out and her concerns about how drills can impact the psychological development of young children.


Interview Highlights

On changes in types of drills

What we're starting to see is definitely more of a shift. What more schools are starting to do is to actually simulate what an active shooter situation would be like, which means they're having someone dress up pretending to be the active shooter. They're actually firing off blanks or they're actually using rubber bullets in some of the trainings that we have seen, which has some various concern[s] for many of us.

On drills becoming more prevalent

I think part of that is, quite honestly, we have more companies that are seeing, especially, K-through-12 and higher ed school safety as a way to make money. What they are also doing is they are scaring superintendents and administrators into thinking that they have to have these types of drills in order to be better prepared. I've heard some of them use the argument [that] if you don't do these kinds of drills, then everybody's going to freeze and they're not going to know what to do. And that couldn't be further from the truth.

On the psychological impact of drills

Well, what you're doing is you are creating a sensorial experience, which really heightens all of our senses. And 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. And there's actually examples of where these drills have been done very irresponsibly and they have traumatized individuals or have actually led to bodily harm.

On the most effective way to prepare for potential shootings

What we can do is we can prepare our students and our staff members through lockdown procedures. And that is where you get behind a locked door, if possible, out of the line of sight. But we can do that in a way for which, first of all, we talk them through what it means to go into a lockdown and where should we be positioned in that room. And then we can practice that in a very calm manner.

And the analogy that I use is we don't light a fire in the hallway to practice fire drills. When we're teaching stranger danger, we don't put a child on a street corner and have someone grab them and scare them. We are able to teach these things through ways where we talk them through it and then we walk them through it and they respond accordingly.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

More states are requiring public schools, from elementary to high school, to hold active shooter drills.

JONANN HORN: I am JonAnn Horn, and I am the principal at Brookside Elementary in Nicholasville, Ky. I really struggle with being required to conduct the lockdown drills and how I'm afraid it makes a lot of our students feel. You know, when you have to take 6-year-olds to the cafeteria and have them practice running to a kitchen storage room and hiding quietly, it is really - it's really unsettling.

NADIA ANEBTAWI: My name is Nadia Anebtawi (ph), and I am a preschool teacher. I'd like to think that I would be able to fight a shooter off, but, you know, I was trained to be a teacher, not someone that would protect students from an active shooter. It's not something that's in my job description.

MICHELE GAY: So I am Michele Gay. I'm a former teacher - elementary school teacher - and I'm also the mother of three beautiful girls, one of whom I lost at Sandy Hook School on December 14, 2012. Because we're talking, in a lockdown situation, about the potential threat of human-made violence, it's very different than a natural disaster or a fire disaster or something like that. So it's really, really important that all students and staff, especially those like my girls with some kind of trauma history, know very clearly and in advance that this is a drill.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you just heard there, regular lockdowns can upset children and the adults responsible for keeping them safe. It's a tricky balance many administrators face as they try to make sure students and staff are prepared in the event of a school shooting.

Melissa Reeves is the former president of the National Association of School Psychologists, and she joins us now. Welcome.

MELISSA REEVES: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So for a lot of people, these drills might seem harmless - right? - telling kids to be quiet, stay calm, what to do during an emergency. But they've actually really changed. What are we seeing in schools? How are these drills enacted?

REEVES: Yeah. What we're starting to see is definitely more of a shift. What more schools are starting to do is to actually simulate what an active shooter situation would be like, which means they're having someone dress up, pretending to be the active shooter. They're actually firing off blanks, or they're actually using rubber bullets in some of the trainings that we have seen, which has some various concern for many of us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. And does it seem like these drills are becoming more prevalent?

REEVES: Yes, it does. And I think part of that is, quite honestly, we have more companies that are seeing especially K-12 and, you know, higher ed school safety as a way to make money. What they are also doing is they are scaring superintendents and administrators into thinking that they have to have these types of drills in order to be better prepared. I've heard some of them, you know, use the argument, if you don't do these kinds of drills, then everybody's going to freeze, and they're not going to know what to do. And that couldn't be further from the truth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what kind of toll can these drills, as they are at the moment, have on children and on teachers?

REEVES: Well, what you're doing is, you know, you are creating, you know, a sensorial experience, which really heightens all of our senses. And 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, you know, better preparing them to respond in these kinds of situations. And there's actually examples of where these drills have been done very irresponsibly...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

REEVES: ...And they have traumatized individuals or have actually led to bodily harm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, there have been instances where active shooter drills became too real. At an elementary school in Indiana, teachers were reportedly hit with plastic pellets, leaving welts and bruises. Children have cried in the classroom after them. What is the most effective way to handle these drills? What should be the standard, in your view?

REEVES: What we can do is we can prepare our students and our staff members through lockdown procedures. You know, and that is where you get, you know, behind a locked door, if possible, out of the line of sight. But we can do that in a way for which - first of all, we talk them through, you know, what it means to go into a lockdown and where should we be positioned in that room. And then we can practice that in a very calm manner.

And the analogy that I use is, we don't light a fire in the hallway to practice fire drills. You know, when we're teaching stranger danger, we don't put, you know, a child on a street corner and have someone grab them and scare them. We are able to teach these things through ways where we talk them through it, and then we walk them through it. And they respond accordingly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Melissa Reeves is an associate professor at Winthrop University and the former president of the National Association of School Psychologists. Thank you very much.

REEVES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.