A Look At The Value Of Active Shooter Drills In Schools

Nov 22, 2019
Originally published on November 22, 2019 5:04 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Many parents have heard their school-aged children describe the ins and outs of an active shooter drill. Get into the closet. Stay away from the door. Be as quiet as possible. The exercises are one way to prepare students for the possibility of a shooter on campus, but do these drills - some of which are mandated by state law - do more harm than good? Well, Illinois Newsroom's Lee Gaines found disagreement among some parents and experts.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Attention. Lockdown. This is an intruder drill. Lockdown.

LEE GAINES, BYLINE: Kelli Maxwell and her fifth grade students rush to one side of the classroom and huddle together on the floor.

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KELLI MAXWELL: Why are you choosing here?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Because of the windows.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Because if they shoot, they can't break through.

MAXWELL: And he said intruder, so we're guessing that they're in the building, all right?

GAINES: This is the first active shooter drill of the year at South Elementary School, about 20 minutes from Champaign. The drills often involve hiding in the classroom and sometimes evacuating the school. Some parents are concerned the exercises, which are now required in Illinois, will traumatize children. Others welcome the preparation.

RONICK FRAZIER: It's a reality that one day, somebody might walk in their school and shoot. And I would rather my daughter be prepared rather than panic and freeze and become a victim.

GAINES: Ronick Frazier has two daughters in the nearby Champaign Unit 4 School District. Frazier says she's talked to parents who are worried about the drills, but she's more concerned about preparing her 10 and 14-year-olds for the worst-case scenario.

FRAZIER: They're young black girls, so they have experienced their fair share of trauma. And I don't see any way that the drill can do more harm than if your child was caught up in a real situation and did not know what to do.

GAINES: But another Champaign mom, Dianne, says she's seen the harm these drills can do.

DIANNE: It was heartbreaking. She was screaming and yelling.

GAINES: Her daughter, Rory, is in second grade, and she's an anxious kid. She's on the autism spectrum and has ADHD. We aren't using Dianne's last name to protect Rory's privacy. Last spring, Rory's school had a hard lockdown drill, where students were told to stay in their classroom, stay silent and keep calm. Dianne says Rory came home upset and worried about bad guys with guns.

DIANNE: She loves school and she kept yelling, I don't want to go back. I don't want to go back.

GAINES: After seeing Rory's reaction, Dianne says she doesn't think any kids should have to participate in drills like these.

MELISSA BRYMER: Fair enough, but an emergency can happen at any point in a school day.

GAINES: Melissa Brymer is with the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. The group offers guidance on how to implement active shooter drills in schools without traumatizing students.

BRYMER: Because we can't predict when an emergency is going to happen, it is important to make sure that students know of the basic steps of what to do in case there are these times when an adult isn't present.

GAINES: Brymer says these drills can save lives, but child psychiatrist Steven Schlozman says there's no research to prove they're effective. He's co-director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.

STEVEN SCHLOZMAN: Whether or not the drills make a difference, I think, is really up in the air.

GAINES: He says researchers have collected anecdotal evidence showing these drills can be challenging for kids with anxiety and developmental disorders, like Rory has.

SCHLOZMAN: Despite people being super careful to make this a more palatable exercise for them, they still get pretty, you know, at best, unnerved and, at worst, pretty traumatized.

GAINES: Schlozman doesn't believe kids have much to gain from these drills.

SCHLOZMAN: But I do think that that train has left the station, like I can't see them stopping that.

GAINES: There's one point he and Brymer do agree on - the need for more research on active shooter drills. At least eight states have laws that require active shooter drills in schools, and three others are considering similar legislation - meaning for now, at least, the drills are here to stay.

For NPR News, I'm Lee Gaines in Urbana.

CHANG: OK, it seems the jury is still out on whether active shooter drills do more harm than good, but a new U.S. government report underlines one thing that could really keep students safer, and that is social and emotional support. Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education desk has been looking into that report. And she's here with us to walk us through some of the surprising takeaways.

Hey, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what did you find out from this report?

KAMENETZ: So the Secret Service looked in depth at 41 targeted school attacks that happened between 2008 and 2017. Targeted means it's not gun - it's not drug related or gang related. A student brought a weapon to school and harmed another person.

CHANG: OK.

KAMENETZ: And one headline was that these attacks are very quick. Almost half are over within just one minute.

CHANG: Wow. So does that mean - because these attacks are over so quickly, does that mean that a lockdown wouldn't do much good?

KAMENETZ: Well, certainly, they're not a panacea, right? It's a little ironic because this report's coming from, you know, the agency that guards the president. And yet, the lead author of the report, Lina Alathari, said actually, schools' emphasis needs to be not on kind of hardened security but on prevention and particularly a kind of prevention that she called threat assessment. And here's Alathari. Here's how she explains it.

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LINA ALATHARI: A proactive approach championed by the Secret Service for the last 20 years to identify students who are exhibiting concerning behavior or may be in distress and getting them the help they need before they even resort to violence as an option.

CHANG: OK, yeah. But how do you identify those students who are in distress? And how do you get to them in time to help them? That seems like the key question, right?

KAMENETZ: Absolutely. So from looking at these cases, often, they identify themselves. So in 9 out of 10 cases the Secret Service looked at, the perpetrator either told someone directly of their intentions or threatened someone or else they broke school rules in some other really concerning way, like bringing a weapon to school, before the attack. And so one big problem might be that there are early indications, but schools either don't have the resources to respond or, maybe, peers are seeing something, but they don't trust the adults with that information.

CHANG: Right.

KAMENETZ: You know, and second - and closely related to that - is what steps do schools actually take when a student is acting out in this way? This is kind of chilling as a detail, but a large number of these attacks took place right after a student came back from being suspended or even while they were actively suspended. And the point, according to the report, is that punishment isn't prevention. Struggling students also need support because excluding them from school may not take away the threat.

CHANG: Did this study identify other common traits that the attackers shared?

KAMENETZ: Well, they said, you know, you can't profile a school shooter, right? It's true more than 8 in 10 are male, and whites are overrepresented. But really, the things that they had in common were that they all faced some kind of stress. Many, many had mental health issues, home breakups due to divorces. And what's particularly important for educators to realize is that 80% of these perpetrators were bullied, usually at school.

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

KAMENETZ: So more of them were actually victims of bullying than bullied others. And that's why Alathari says to educators...

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ALATHARI: Assess the climate of your school. Secret Service recommends looking at what is the perception of bullying in the school and what kind of interventions are schools putting in place to empower students to come forward with information?

CHANG: It seems like there are so many things that schools have to consider. Just to zoom out, what do you think is the main takeaway from all of this?

KAMENETZ: Well, I think, surprisingly, one of the takeaways is that school shootings are very, very rare. There is no upward trend line, according to this report. And in the real world, our resources are limited. So when a school invests in a very visible security measure, like a lockdown drill, maybe it gives peace of mind. But the Secret Service says, you know, social and emotional interventions are what really pay off over time to keep students safe.

CHANG: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz.

Thanks, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF AME'S "POSITIVLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.