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Kids going back to school in a pandemic are met with another trauma: Active shooter drills

Margaret Fram’s 5-year-old daughter knows what to do if there is an active shooter at her school. She's participated in six emergency drills this year. 

She did so from the comfort – or at least within the confines – of her New Jersey home. When the school reopened for in-person classes, the family opted to stick with distance learning for the rest of the semester.

Though the coronavirus has dominated discussions about school safety over the past year, the reopening of more schools and two mass shootings that killed 18 people remind parents of a threat that had momentarily receded from their list of fears: school massacres.

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Here's an even more chilling thought: Experts worry that schools may be more vulnerable to violent attacks than they were before the pandemic, citing  underlying factors such as gun-related deaths and reports of mental health concerns among youths. 

Active shooter drills – required in roughly 40 states – may make matters worse. There is scant evidence of their effectiveness and growing concern about the traumatizing effect they may have on the children they're intended to keep safe.

Fram recalled observing a drill alongside her daughter, whose teacher captured the event in real-time through her iPad. The lights went off, and everything went still. Students – including those like her daughter who were learning from home – were instructed to do nothing and stay quiet for 10 or so minutes. 

Fram has worked as a substitute teacher and understands the school’s desire to “keep everything as normal as possible” now that classrooms have reopened. In a country where there are more school shootings than in all the other most advanced industrial nations combined, she recognizes that normal means preparing for a mass shooting.  

But the drills “felt completely pointless to me,” Fram said. “It just seems like it’s unnecessarily digging up trauma. … It’s one more thing to put on my mental checklist of ‘OK, I have to explain this to my child.’” 

Return of school shootings?

The 10 school shootings reported in 2020 while schools were closed by COVID-19 for part of the year were down from the 25 shootings the previous year and the 24 shootings in 2018.

There was a record-breaking number of gun-related deaths and a record number of gun sales last year in the USA. Rates of mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression among the country’s youth got worse over the past year.

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Kenneth Trump, president of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services, said the pandemic exacerbates conditions in certain students that could “add another level” to the likelihood of violent behavior. 

“For those who tend to be higher risk of perpetrating violence – whether it’s bullying or [committing] a school shooting – we know that undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues are often a factor,” Trump said.

He is far from the only one to worry that a return to school could mean a return to campus massacres.

“I am very concerned about this time bomb that could be heading for us if we're not adequately prepared,” said Nicole Hockley, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, an organization that aims to protect children from gun violence. Hockley’s son Dylan was one of the 20 children, along with six educators, who were murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.

Hockley launched the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, a hotline of sorts through which students can report classmates who may be at risk of harming themselves or others. The rate of students reporting concerns about suicidal classmates increased over the past year and became the top reason for incoming tips, followed by bullying and depression.  

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Those are unsettling numbers for school security experts. Half of the country’s school shootings are perpetrated by current or former students, according to a report in June 2020 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Children's access to guns remains high in some parts of the USA. In Colorado, 1 in 5 high schoolers say they have easy access to a firearm, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Pediatrics. 

"The school violence threats are not going to pause simply because we're pivoting” after a year of COVID-19, Trump said. “These threats are real and can happen any day, so we have to make sure we're ready to hit the ground running and ensuring that those traditional emergency plans are up to date.”

'Just call it a drill'

Are active shooter drills the answer? Experts have their doubts.

In some cases, drills demand that students not only stay quiet but also secure the room, shut off lights and replicate methods for fighting back and distracting a hypothetical shooter. 

There’s little evidence such tactics are effective, and in many cases, they can be detrimental to participants’ mental health. Active shooter drills are associated with increases in depression, stress and anxiety and physiological health problems, according to a report published last September by Everytown, a gun safety advocacy and research organization, and Georgia Tech.

Experts – from therapists to school security consultants – have in recent years called for less intrusive methods of preparing students for an attack.

Most states require schools to conduct a certain number of active shooter drills per year but seldom stipulate that students enact a response to a hypothetical attack.

Walking students through the motions of what to do if an active shooter is on campus may trigger or otherwise traumatize certain students, undermining their ability to protect themselves in the event of a real attack, said Nancy Kislin, a New Jersey-based child and family therapist and author of the book "LOCKDOWN: Talking to Your Kids about School Violence." 

She recommends an approach summarized in her mantra: “Just call it a drill.” As an example, she pointed to the generations-old method of conducting fire drills at schools. Officials don’t activate the fire extinguisher or have students stop, drop and roll. Instead, they typically describe the steps and walk children through the school’s fire escape route. 

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Kislin and other experts worry the impulse to resume active shooter drills could be a sign that schools are attempting to tick off security checkboxes after a year of focusing almost exclusively on COVID-19-related safety. The unintended consequences of active shooter drills may be especially pronounced amid the pandemic, given the trauma with which many students – and educators – are already grappling. 

“There isn’t research that supports [the idea] that scaring a child … will actually protect them and save their life,” Kislin said.

Follow Alia Wong on Twitter: @aliaemily.