A 5-year-old, terrified by celebratory fireworks at a football game, turning to his father and tearfully crying out “Active shooter!”
Elementary-school students wetting their pants because active-shooter drills have made them too scared to go down the hall to the bathroom.
Millions of American children, some as young as age 3, have gone through active-shooter drills at school in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School mass murder. The drills have become more common as a series of school gun massacres made headlines. Forty-two states have laws requiring some sort of emergency or safety drills in schools, many of which are designed to protect against active shooters, according to the nonprofit Education Commission of the States, NBCNews.com reported.
But there is little research on the drills’ effectiveness, and while there are some federal recommendations, there is no template for schools to follow in terms of how to do them, how often to conduct them and how to explain them to students of different ages.
Over the past two decades, the drills have ramped up in intensity — with some schools going so far as to use fake blood and fire blanks at students. A drill last month at an Indiana school prompted outrage when teachers were shot execution-style with pellet guns, leaving them injured.
If you think those last two examples are taking things too far, consider this: Some schools have conducted the drills without warning, leading some students to think it’s the real thing and to text what they think could be their final goodbyes to their parents.
Some school districts, recognizing the potentially traumatizing effect of the drill, have sought to employ age-appropriate language, acknowledging the obvious fact that high school students can handle phrasing that would terrify kindergartners. For other districts, it involves having guidance counselors or school psychologists available during and after the drills.
But even relatively tame active-shooter drills with plenty of warning can traumatize students, critics say, raising the question of whether schools should do them at all.
“Children are much more likely to be abused by a parent than shot at school, to be in a car accident, to be screamed at by a teacher. We don’t practice that,” said Joy Levinson, a New York City-based clinical psychologist. “It causes school to feel unsafe, like a place we can’t learn. That’s what schools are for.”
There were at least 103 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in 2018, resulting in 60 deaths, including 7 suicide deaths (where no one else was harmed) and 88 injuries, including one self-harm injury (where no one else was harmed), according to EverytownResearch.org, a nonpartisan organization dedicating to reducing gun violence.
Those 60 deaths are tragic and senseless, and 103 gunfire incidents on school grounds is 103 too many. But there were 56.6 million elementary school and secondary school (middle school or high school) students and 19.9 million college students enrolled in the fall of 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Or, as the Washington Post reported in 2018, the odds of a public school student getting shot and killed since 1999 are about 1 in 614 million. It’s extremely unlikely, statistically.
“Statistically unlikely” means nothing to the parents of students killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. We know the names of those schools because of the senseless mass murders that took place there. Nor does “statistically unlikely” mean anything to the terrified student who hasn’t been warned that this is a drill.
But Dr. Levinson is correct that most American children are unlikely to be caught in an active-shooter incident at school, and we agree with her questioning whether the drills might be doing more harm than good.
School district administrators, school principals and school teachers should be collaborating to ensure that the active-shooter drills are age-appropriate, and that the drill doesn’t become more traumatizing than no drill at all.