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Active shooter drills at schools could be doing kids more harm than good, say experts

Such drills "could potentially trigger either past trauma or trigger such a significant physiological reaction that it actually ends up scaring the individuals," said an expert.

Active shooter drills at schools could be doing kids more harm than good, say experts

With a worrying rise in mass shootings in the country — both inside schools and outside — education and law enforcement officials have amped up efforts to prevent another attack. While stricter gun reforms are undoubtedly the best longterm solution to this epidemic, what we do have now are students undergoing active shooter drills to prepare for the possibility of another massacre. However, experts and parents have expressed concern that such drills may be doing more harm than good to students as they could have a lasting impact on their psychological development.


Melissa Reeves, former president of the National Association of School Psychologists, recently voiced these concerns while speaking to NPR about such drills, some of which even feature simulated gunfire. "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," she said.


Reeves believes the rise in such drills in educational institutions may be due to certain companies viewing higher ed school safety as a money-making opportunity. "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," she stated.


These drills could easily backfire if not done responsibly and without taking into consideration their potential to trigger past trauma, Reeves pointed out, saying, "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 are actually examples of where these drills have been done very irresponsibly and they have traumatized individuals or have actually led to bodily harm."


Rather than subject children to simulated active shooter drills, Reeves says a more effective way to prepare for potential shootings would be to practice lockdown procedures. "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 lockdown and where should we be positioned in that room. And then we can practice that in a very calm manner," she said.


"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," Reeves added. Although high-profile media coverage has perpetuated a heightened sense of danger, in reality, school shootings with multiple victims are still rare. A February 2018 study by researchers at Northeastern University discovered that the overall number of students killed in shootings at schools has come down from what it was in the early 1990s to about 0.15 per million in 2014-2015.


In a March 2018 report for The Washington Post, Harvard instructor David Ropeik stated that the likelihood of a public school student being killed by a gun while at school is roughly 1 in 614,000,000. "What happens to children’s ability to learn if they spend their time in the classroom wondering, even if only occasionally, who’s going to burst in and open fire? What does the chronic stress of such worry do to their health? What do constant messages of potential danger in a place that’s supposed to be safe do to their sense of security in the world? Across the population of public school children in the United States, fear of this extraordinarily rare risk is almost certainly doing far more overall harm than have the shootings themselves, horrendous as they are," he wrote.


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