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Ohio children feel traumatized by some active shooter drills. Do students need them?

After months of therapy and lingering nightmares of a gunman in her school, a Cincinnati student is starting to figure out how to successfully manage intruder drills.

Her teacher at North Avondale Montessori allows the girl's best friend to hug her as they practice hiding. That helps, but the nightmares do amplify following the drills, as does her nightly monitoring of her home's front door to ensure it is locked. 

At its worst, her anxiety prompted her to ask her mother about the door lock more than a dozen times before bed.

She is 7 years old.

As school shootings have become a dreaded, albeit rare, fact of American education, so too have efforts to equip children to survive them. But pointing to recent anecdotal and scholarly evidence, some are asking: Do the benefits of realistic active shooter drills outweigh the harm they're causing?

The young student in North Avondale provides one perspective amid an expanding number of children (and even educators) in Greater Cincinnati who feel traumatized by the drills due to realistic scenarios, unclear procedures, or both.

The North Avondale student's mother spoke with The Enquirer but asked that she and her child not be named for privacy reasons. 

In one drill, the student's substitute teacher told her and her first grade classmates about the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, the mother said.

Her daughter, just 6 years old then, was terrified. Nightmares riddled her sleep. But she long concealed their cause, finding the memory too scary to talk about.

The daughter eventually asked to see a doctor. A pediatrician said the issues were likely related to trauma. She went to therapy for months.

Eventually the girl told her mother that drills had caused the nightmares.

Hearing about Sandy Hook wasn't the only frightening incident for the girl, who has been practicing lockdowns since she was 4. She and her classmates were once told to remove their shoes in order to throw them at a potential intruder, her mother said.

"Grown-ups don't understand what it feels like," the student said recently, according to her mother. "Even when they tell me it's a drill, I still have to hide, so I don't believe them."

Her mother said active shooter drills should be conducted without students present, a method some local school districts have already adopted.

"These kids come home with trauma," she said, "and we as parents aren’t ready."

When drills go wrong

Earlier this school year, several students at New Richmond Middle School in Clermont County were injured during an active shooter drill. One student suffered a cut on her face. Others were bruised from falling during an evacuation procedure.

During the drill, the school principal posed as an active shooter and used an air horn to "simulate the noise level that would take place in a real event," according to a school statement.

A few months before, police officers fired blanks from a shotgun and rifle at Franklin High School in Warren County during a drill.

Lt. Gerry Massey with Franklin police earlier told The Enquirer that "it did cause some stress" among students, but the goal was authentic training.

Troubles are not limited to the recent past. In a 2015 drill at Cincinnati's Hughes High School, a student feared an actual active shooter had entered the school and called police.

A similar incident last month at the Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies horrified several people in the building. Teachers at the Roselawn school recently said officials failed to specify that announced descriptions of a mock intruder were part of a drill.

Teachers and students reacted as if an active shooter was inside their building. Seventh and eighth graders grabbed scissors and prepared to fight.

Dianna Schweitzer, who teaches English as a second language at the school, hid under a sink with two students. She said she offered her hiding place to a colleague because the colleague's children were younger.

Teachers at the school recently spoke out to CPS school board members, who have expressed interest in creating an advisory committee to possibly update how the district performs drills.

Gun violence is the number one fear among students
USA Today and Ipsos surveyed six hundred middle school and high school students about school gun violence. One in five say they don't feel safe in school.

If it were up to Mike Moroski, a school board member, active shooter drills would be shelved.

"We're raising a generation of traumatized children," he said.

CPS works with police to "ensure our procedures are current and effective for today's potential threats," the district said in a statement. "School counselors and psychologists are prepared to support students and address their concerns following a drill."

CPS parents and teachers who spoke with The Enquirer called for at least better notification of the drills.

"Instructions need to be clearer. Procedures need to be practiced," said Renee Nelson, a second grade teacher at Pleasant Hill Academy in College Hill. Nelson's daughter told The Enquirer she also experienced a drill she thought was real.

'I was crying'

Tyanna Nelson, Renee Nelson's daughter, said she feared a legitimate active shooter in a drill held the previous school year. 

Then an eighth grader at Walnut Hills High, Tyanna responded by hiding.

She heard a description of the mock intruder's appearance and details of his location in the school over a PA system.

"I was crying," Tyanna said, adding she spent much of 30 minutes of terror squeezing a friend's hand. "I was assuming I would hear sirens and more instructions would be given."

Similar incidents have been reported across the U.S., to the point that the two largest teachers' unions, alongside a gun safety group, called this month for the elimination of unannounced drills and drills that "mimic an actual incident."

The American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and Everytown for Gun Safety jointly released the report, which said mental health professionals are becoming increasingly troubled by how drills affect student mental health.

Dr. Laurel Williams, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, is one such expert raising concerns, according to the report.

"The sense of dread these drills can evoke can be quite pervasive," Williams said. “If you’re constantly given the viewpoint that the world is scary and unpreventable things happen, it pervasively makes us less secure as a society.”

Not all students have horror stories. Macen Hall, 14, attends Walnut Hills. He praised drills at his school.

"I react to the drills calmly because I have been greatly prepared for these situations," Hall wrote by text.

Are drills effective?

Many argue schools need active shooter drills.

Ralph Ruwan, the security supervisor at CPS, told The Enquirer that the drills can save lives. And if students and teachers "know it's a drill, that will take a lot of the trauma away."

Abbie Youkilis' niece, Jaime Guttenberg, was killed in 2018 during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Youkilis of Amberley Village told The Enquirer she and Jaime's father, Fred Guttenberg, support active shooter drills.

"But we think they are overdoing it and terrorizing children," Youkilis said. "We are concerned that potential future shooters are going through the same drills and developing new scenarios to work around them."

Youkilis added their support for drills is "only because we haven't fixed the underlying problem ... which is too many guns in the hands of those who should not have them."

Jaime's relatives operate a group, Orange Ribbons for Jaime, which supports universal background checks for the sale of gun ammunition, including other "common sense gun safety reforms," Youkilis said.

Cameron Smith, 18, told The Enquirer that drills do help in some ways, such as in evacuations. But they are unlikely to aid a student in the traumatic event of encountering an active shooter.

Smith would know. He survived being shot by a fellow student in 2016 at Madison Jr./Sr. High School.

Others point to scarce evidence regarding the effectiveness of active shooter drills.

A recent Ball State University study analyzed firearm violence prevention methods, including plans to foil active shooters, and found none were backed by empirical evidence. In fact, the measures may be "creating a false sense of security," the study found.

The researchers did, however, acknowledge the possibility that school resource officers could minimize the number of victims in an incident.

But considering the number of deaths due to shootings in schools, a school has a probability of facing a single shooting fatality once every 3,250 years, according to the study.

And while billions of dollars are spent on school security and to pay school resource officers, the study said, such "massive expenditures" will have little or no impact on the thousands of annual youth firearm deaths occurring outside of school.

In the 2014-15 school year, for example, the study found more than 2,900 school-aged children and teens died in a gun-related homicide or suicide outside of school. Just 29 children died in such incidents inside schools that same year.

There's also the problem of the quickness of many school shootings, according to the study.

A 2019 U.S. Secret Service report on school violence found that with most attacks ending quickly, law enforcement "rarely had the opportunity to intervene before serious harm was caused to students or staff."

The report identified 41 instances of targeted school violence perpetrated by a current or a recent former student over a decade span. Nearly half ended within a minute – possibly less time needed for teachers and students to initiate whatever safety response they practiced in a drill.

Student with sensory disorder disturbed by drills

Adalina Nagel, a seventh grader at Clark Montessori High in Hyde Park, has sensory processing disorder, which causes heightened sensitivity to things like sound and touch.

Drills particularly irritate her. She is not comfortable in close proximity to others. The peal of alarms and the tone of whispering classmates during a drill cause distress. Due to her disorder, Adalina is allowed prior warning of drill alarms so she has time to put on ear protection.

"The lockdown drills, there's really not much much to them," Adalina said in an interview. "At maximum, I think they should do one per year and that's it."

Adalina's younger sister, 10-year-old Leanna, said drills "make the kids scared that their district is not as safe as everyone tells them."

Her mother, Mindy Nagel, said Leanna now refuses to watch movies with weapons and worries about people carrying guns in public.

Her daughter's newfound fear of weapons, Nagel said, developed immediately following the most recent drill at her school, North Avondale. 

Nagel received a school notification after the drill informing parents that one had occurred. The notice specified students had practiced a lockdown drill with an officer but did not give further specifics.

"I assume it (the drill) had to due with guns because she developed this fear of guns," Nagel said.

Nagel supports holding active shooter drills without students. She was upset after Adalina told with pride how she'd thought to grab a stapler during a drill to use as throwing-object ammunition against a shooter.

"I think, of course, if one child dies in school that’s too much," Nagel said, "but I think that if the teacher and staff are prepared, then that is enough. I don’t think we need to be teaching kids to weaponize themselves."

Is holding drills without students a solution?

Mason City Schools has opted to hold active shooter drills without students present, according to Tracey Carson, a district spokesperson.

"This gives school personnel and our safety partners the opportunity to practice important procedures without causing undue stress to our students," Carson wrote in an email.

Earlier this year, teachers read an instructional book about life-saving practices to kindergartners, first and second graders, Carson added.

Newport Independent Schools has also elected to not conduct active shooter drills with students, according to Tim Grayson, the district's safe school coordinator.

"While we have considered the possibility, we have concerns related to the possible negative impact on both our students and staff," Grayson said by email.

Other schools that include students in the drills, like Cincinnati Country Day, send advance notice to parents and guardians.

At Sycamore Community Schools, parents and guardians are notified afterward. Sycamore also allows students to opt out of its "armed intruder training," according to a district spokesperson.

Ohio law requires schools run an active shooter drill once every three years, Mason's Carson said, but student involvement is optional.

State law does require three safety drills a year involving students, to practice responses to an armed person on school property, an act of terrorism or "other act of violence."

In a fire drill, 'you don't set a fire'

Moroski, the CPS board member, and Julie Sellers, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, said CPS recently received a top school safety rating from the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of America's 76 biggest urban systems.

But while one student told Moroski he feels safest at school, drills are contributing to his growing unease, Moroski said.

"For legislators to say: 'Here, we did something about it with these drills,' " Moroski said, "is absurd."

Union leader Sellers commended school board members like Moroski for considering a revamp to realistic active shooter drills in CPS.

"When there’s a fire drill," she said, "you don’t set a fire."