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Experts Worry Active Shooter Drills In Schools Could Be Traumatic For Students

A regular drumbeat of mass shootings in the U.S., both inside schools and out, has ramped up pressure on education and law enforcement officials to do all they can to prevent the next attack.

Close to all public schools in the U.S. conducted some kind of lockdown drill in 2015-2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Last year, 57% of teens told researchers they worry about a shooting happening at their school. A slightly higher percentage of parents of teenagers, 63%, fear a shooting at their child's school, the Pew Research Center found.

But many experts and parents are asking if the drills, some complete with simulated gunfire, are doing more harm than good.

Despite high-profile media coverage, school shootings with multiple victims are still rare. The overall number of students killed in shootings at schools is down from the early 1990s to about 0.15 per million in 2014-2015, according to researchers at Northeastern University. One Harvard instructor estimated the likelihood of a public school student being killed by a gun in school on any given day between 1999 and 2018 at about 1 in 614 million.

Melissa Reeves, a professor at Winthrop University and former president of the National Association of School Psychologists, talked with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about changes in how school shooting drills are carried out and her concerns about how drills can impact the psychological development of young children.

Interview Highlights

On changes in types of drills

What we're starting to see is definitely more of a shift. What more schools are starting to do is to actually simulate what an active shooter situation would be like, which means they're having someone dress up pretending to be the active shooter. They're actually firing off blanks or they're actually using rubber bullets in some of the trainings that we have seen, which has some various concern[s] for many of us.

On drills becoming more prevalent

I think part of that is, quite honestly, we have more companies that are seeing, especially, K-through-12 and higher ed school safety as a way to make money. What they are also doing is they are scaring superintendents and administrators into thinking that they have to have these types of drills in order to be better prepared. I've heard some of them use the argument [that] if you don't do these kinds of drills, then everybody's going to freeze and they're not going to know what to do. And that couldn't be further from the truth.

On the psychological impact of drills

Well, what you're doing is you are creating a sensorial experience, which really heightens all of our senses. And what these drills can really do is potentially trigger either past trauma or trigger such a significant physiological reaction that it actually ends up scaring the individuals instead of better preparing them to respond in these kinds of situations. And there's actually examples of where these drills have been done very irresponsibly and they have traumatized individuals or have actually led to bodily harm.

On the most effective way to prepare for potential shootings

What we can do is we can prepare our students and our staff members through lockdown procedures. And that is where you get behind a locked door, if possible, out of the line of sight. But we can do that in a way for which, first of all, we talk them through what it means to go into a lockdown and where should we be positioned in that room. And then we can practice that in a very calm manner.

And the analogy that I use is we don't light a fire in the hallway to practice fire drills. When we're teaching stranger danger, we don't put a child on a street corner and have someone grab them and scare them. We are able to teach these things through ways where we talk them through it and then we walk them through it and they respond accordingly.

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Corrected: November 13, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier Web version of this story said that the likelihood of a public school student being killed by a gun in school was 1 in 614 million. That number applies to any given day (between 1999 and 2018), not the student's entire time in school.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
Sophia Alvarez Boyd