This time of year, children across the United States are already facing active shooter drills in school. Dr. Laurel Williams, an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital, explains to Parentology why practicing active shooter drills may actually be detrimental to your child’s health.
Too Young to Understand
Children under the age of nine have very little understanding of how time works, which means when schools are conducting drills, the idea that there’s an emergency seems very imperative. “Most kids don’t even learn how clocks work until the first or second grade,” Williams says, explaining it’s difficult for children to understand the difference between what is happening, and what will happen soon.
Drills may give children the idea the thing they’re practicing for is going to happen soon. They could struggle with what will happen versus a someday-maybe-event in the future. The emotions that result can be similar to those they’d experience if there were a real emergency.
Active Shooter Drills vs. Lockdown Drills
While Williams thinks there may be benefits to lockdown drills, she doesn’t believe there’s see the same benefits for active shooter drills at any age.
Lockdown drills are more generalized and offer students and faculty instructions on how to seek shelter in the event of an emergency.
Active shooter drills teach students and faculty what to do in the event a person (or persons) with a gun is on school grounds. These preparatory exercises often involve having someone stalking hallways and trying to get into classrooms.
Williams says while there may be some benefits for middle or high school students practicing active shooter drills, she doesn’t believe they outweigh the potential risks of causing children to develop traumatic reactions or anxiety conditions.
Williams explains anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder elementary and middle school-aged children have. “To put something purposefully anxious and traumatic in front of children, with no true sense that it’s going to save lives, I just can’t agree with that.”
According to Williams, there has only been one study conducted on the long-term effects of active shooter drills on students, and that study was completed with college-age students as the subjects. There is no known expectation of what the long-term effects will be at this time.
Use Resources for Good
Anything a parent, teacher or school system can do to help improve and foster epistemic trust is much more useful to society than using resources to teach children to be afraid of each other or others, Williams says. She believes schools should look at the resources they have and decide how best to use them.
“To be clear, I’m not saying schools shouldn’t prepare and have safety and security processes in place, but they should be handled by the adults.”
Williams says both she and the National Society of Psychologists agree young children should not be practicing active shooter drills due to the detrimental effects they can have on mental health and wellbeing.
Sending the Wrong Message
In addition to the possible negative effects active shooter drills have on young children, Williams says they send a bad message as well. If children are taught that they need to fight an armed gunman who enters into their classroom, they will inevitably come to believe that if they, or their classmates, are shot it is was because of something they did wrong.
What Parents Can Do
Experts agree parents should get involved in the things happening in their child’s school. Williams suggests talking to administrators and finding out what the school’s policy is on drills (if they have one) and how they’re executed. She suggests parents be informed ahead of time if a drill is going to place, and asks the district to post tips on how parents can talk to their children about what’s happening, either before the drills happen, or when the kids come home. “Parents, teachers and schools should be partnering around this so we can all support the kids and each other.”
And, if your child suffers from anxiety, Williams says it might be best to keep them home from school the day of a scheduled drill.
Prepare, Don’t Scare
Williams compares active shooter drills to the emergency deplaning demonstrations every airline passenger gets before their flight leaves. “Although both events are horrific, they’re exceedingly rare,” she says, adding it’s still necessary to prepare people for things like school shootings and plane crashes.
But, we don’t want to terrify them. When practicing drills for potential emergencies, Williams says, “There needs to be a balance between having some level of preparation if the worst were to happen, but [keeping it from being] so graphic people are scared to the point of being ineffective.”
A Perspective from Inside the Classroom
High school student Jonah Gottlieb, the Executive Director of the National Children’s Campaign, is no stranger to active shooter drills. “Studies have shown they do nothing to improve school safety and are detrimental to student mental health,” he says, adding he wishes they could do away with them. “Simulating mass shootings only cause people to go through unnecessary trauma and stress.”
Additionally, Gottlieb points out the people most likely to shoot at his school have likely been going through the same active shooter drills he has, making them intimately aware of every precaution he and his classmates will be taking.
Emily Denbow, a high school English teacher worked at one of the first schools in Maine to begin doing active shooter drills. She says the local police department showed a video of a simulated school shooting, then critiqued the responses of the actors in the video.
Next, they ran through a live demonstration. Denbow called the experience traumatizing. The district decided to move away from active shooter scenarios and focus on practicing lockdown drills instead. “It was a lot for adults to handle, and like most educators, we so desperately wanted to protect our children from the harsh reality of life,” she says.
It seems experts, students, and teachers agree active shooter drills are hard on the participants and question the validity of continuing the practice. “Active shooter drills put the burden on students and teachers instead of elected officials with the power to change things,” Gottlieb says. “Our energy and resources should be spent preventing shootings, not trying to survive them.”
Active Shooter Drills in School — Sources
Dr. Laurel Williams, associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Jonah Gottlieb, Executive Director of National Children’s Campaign
Emily Denbow Morrison, M.Ed.