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Do some school active shooting drills do more harm than good?

Many children will go through active shooting drills in the coming weeks, but are these trainings effective, or do they cause psychological stress?
Do some school active shooting drills do more harm than good?
Posted at 12:48 PM, Jul 31, 2023

As school starts to get underway across the U.S. in the coming weeks, many students and teachers will undergo mass shooting drills. 

These types of drills have become more popular in recent years due to a number of notable mass shooting incidents at schools throughout the U.S. 

While many experts say it's important to be prepared for such incidents, there are concerns that some drills can also cause psychological harm. 

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Do drills work?

A study published in 2022 in the Journal of School Violence said schools that successfully implemented lockdowns had 60% fewer total casualties, with 79% reductions in victims pronounced dead at the scene, even after controlling for other variables during shooting incidents. 

Other studies have shown similar results, reaffirming that successful lockdowns reduce casualties. 

"There has never been a case where an armed assailant has, you know, breached a locked classroom door. When they've gotten in, it was either unlocked or they were able to like, shoot through glass, like a glass window and get in," said Franci Crepeau-Hobson, training director with the Colorado School Psychology Internship Consortium. "So knowing that kind of informed this idea in part that standard lockdown procedures are effective."

But experts expressed concerns that higher-intensity drills might lead to more harm than good. 

One popular program is ALICE Training, which involves training that reportedly goes beyond lockdown-only drills. 

"In the chaos of a violent critical incident, every second counts, and ALICE strategies equip civilians with life-saving options that go beyond the traditional and inadequate lockdown-only response," ALICE Training said in a press release. 

Representatives for ALICE Training could not be reached for comment. The company's website said it uses "age-appropriate" training for students. Part of that training includes teaching kids how to distract assailants during incidents. 

The training has been used at 5,500 schools across the U.S., Alice Training says. 

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Psychological impacts

It is when drills go beyond preparing for lockouts that concerns some experts. Of particular concern are when drills are done without any advanced warning.

"I guess you can kind of imagine that would be traumatic for a child to go through," said Crepeau-Hobson. "I mean, people thought they were gonna die and there was actual trauma. It was that it was that kind of harm that we were really concerned about and also, you know, engaging in, practices that there's no evidence that says these are actually helpful in terms of increasing school safety."

Dr. David J. Schonfeld, who directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, echoes Crepeau-Hobson's concerns. He said oftentimes trainings are done from the perspective of first responders who may not fully understand child development when developing their training.

"Children and sometimes the staff are not informed or aware that it's actually an exercise and feel that it is a real event," Schonfeld said. "This is a kind of extreme way to, to bring realism to the drill and it obviously can have significant emotional distress because the individual feels they're actually under attack."

Schonfeld said some of these drills can become way too realistic for young kids to handle.

"There really are simulations that are meant to mimic the actual advance, but they don't, they don't require deception, but they try and recreate the experience of being in an active shooter drill to varying degrees," he said. "So that might mean that they use actual weapons, they might use the sound of gunshots, hopefully blanks, as opposed to live ammunition. They will have individuals that maybe have makeup, to kind of mimic wounds or to mimic blood, they would have predatory and aggressive acting.

"So they might have someone not just go and check to see if the door knobs are locked in the various classrooms, but act as if they're trying to get into the door in a way that, you know, simulates someone who's actually trying to break in. And so we feel that those kind of exercises and drills are not necessary."

Tips for parents, teachers

With many students going through lockdown and active shooter trainings in the coming weeks, Crepeau-Hobson said there are a few things parents and teachers should be looking for. 

For instance, there are questions parents can ask of administrators. 

"I would ask, you know, is there a specific program you're using? Have the adults been trained? Is there evidence that this works? Have the kids been informed? Have the staff been informed? I'm assuming they would if the parents know what have you told the kids about it? Have you explained what's going to happen? Have you explained why you do this?" Crepeau-Hobson said.

"Because we know when we have those conversations with kids and explain this is why we do these drills, that actually helps to increase perceptions of safety and security."

Teachers may also have to deal with questions about drills immediately after such trainings. 

"We can typically identify kids who might have a harder time, maybe kids who already have special needs or they have some kind of mental health challenge or something going on," Crepeau-Hobson said said. "And so we might be particularly careful with them, but if we do it right and we talk about it ahead of time, then we have a chance to talk about it afterwards, telling teachers it's OK to process it with your kids."

Schonfeld also suggests that educators understand children may not always be forthright with showing their feelings after such drills.

"I do think teachers if they're empathic and supportive can convey a culture or climate in a classroom where kids know they can come forward and talk to them and or talk to others in the school if they have distress from things that have happened or are happening in their lives, but we can't assume that they're going to disclose 100% of those experiences or feelings," he said. 

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