Mental Health Experts, Educators Call for End to School Shooter Drills

18 February 2020

Two years ago this month, a 19-year-old American shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Fourteen of the victims were students; the other three were teachers. The gunman was a former student at the high school.

On this anniversary, as with other anniversaries of school shootings, Americans continue debating how to make sure students are safe in schools.

On February 11, a group called Everytown for Gun Safety released a report on one method for reducing gun violence at schools in the United States. Everytown is a not-for-profit organization. It joined with two labor unions in writing the report on school safety drills for active shootings. The two are the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA).

Fifth grade student Alondra Gomez shows how to tie a door shut in a exercise at Pinnacle Charter School during TAC*ONE training for an active shooter situation in a school in Thornton, Colorado, U.S. August 29, 2019.
Fifth grade student Alondra Gomez shows how to tie a door shut in a exercise at Pinnacle Charter School during TAC*ONE training for an active shooter situation in a school in Thornton, Colorado, U.S. August 29, 2019.

What is an active shooter?

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation defines an active shooter as an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area. To increase preparedness for such an event, many schools now hold active shooter drills for students and their teachers.

The new report notes the possible harmful effects of such exercises. It urges school administrators to look for better ways to make schools safe and to prepare children for an active shooter.

U.S. Department of Education numbers show how rare gun violence at schools is: Only 0.2 percent of about 36,000 gun deaths a year happen on school grounds. But almost all schools hold drills designed to prepare their employees and students for an active shooter. In fact, 40 states require such exercises.

Real or not real?

The report says one problem with the way schools carry out active shooter drills is how much they frighten students. When a school fails to inform parents and students about plans for a drill, parents cannot prepare their children, and the children may think that the attack is real.

In some communities, the report says, schools deploy individuals who are told to act like "masked gunmen." Students as young as three or four years old may be told to stay quiet in a small space for a long period of time. Experts on mental health say these experiences can have both short- and long-term effects on how well the children behave in school, as well as on their physical and mental health.

For example, after one drill in New Jersey, an eighth-grade student reportedly said, "I was genuinely not sure if I would finish the day alive."

Melissa Reeves is a former president of the National Association of School Psychologists. She said the drills may "trigger either past trauma or trigger such a... reaction that it actually ends up scaring the individuals instead of better preparing them to respond in these kinds of situations."

There has been little research on how well the exercises prepare students for an active shooter. In 2007, one study found it better to prepare students for an "intruder," rather than a shooter. Another study noted the value of announcing drills in advance and following them with discussion. Students in that situation felt better prepared to handle possible violence.

Surprise drills, on the other hand, can result in trauma to children. One woman in Arizona described the effect drills at her son's school had on him. He started biting his fingernails and "refused to go anywhere alone, even to his room or a bathroom at home," she said.

Laurel Williams is chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. She warned about the worry active shooter drills can create in children: "It's not clear to them that the drill is not real. The younger the child, the less likely they are to understand that an act of violence is not occurring during a drill."

Other steps are needed

Everytown, AFT, and NEA point out that active shooter drills alone will not prevent gun violence. Last year the three organizations announced their own plan to end school shootings. The plan calls for better laws on keeping guns out of the hands of possibly dangerous people. The groups also support raising the age to buy semiautomatic weapons and requiring background checks on gun sales.

The Everytown plan also includes safer storage of firearms, as children sometimes bring guns from home to school.

Everytown, AFT, and NEA oppose any shooter drills for students. Aside from the trauma they may cause, another reason is to keep any detailed planning among adults secret from students. That is because of this troubling fact: almost all mass school shooters are either former or current students who show signs of trouble before the attack. The groups instead urge schools to watch for students who may become the next shooter and provide them the social support and mental health care they need.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English based on the Everytown/NEA/AFT and U.S. Department of Education reports. George Grow was the editor.

How do schools in your country prepare students for an emergency (perhaps a natural disaster if not an attack) on school grounds? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

drill – n. an exercise done to practice military skills or procedures

psychology n. the science or study of the mind and behavior

triggern. something that causes something else to happen

trauma n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

scarev. frighten, to cause (someone) to become afraid

intrudern. a person who is not welcome or wanted in a place

in advancen. before something happens