The Mental Health Toll Of Active Shooter Drills In Schools

An estimated 95% of schools practice lockdown drills. Experts weigh in on the psychological impact of this reality.

On Tuesday, a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. This horrific shooting has again shone the spotlight on school safety and the increasing prevalence of active shooter drills.

During the 2005-06 school year, an estimated 40% of American public schools conducted lockdown drills for students. By the 2015-16 school year, that number had risen to 95%.

Today, at least 42 states require schools to conduct safety or security drills related to human-caused threats, like an active shooter or a bomb. These drills involve children of all ages, including preschool students.

But there’s much debate surrounding the effectiveness of active shooter drills. And many experts have expressed concerns about the psychological impact of these practices on young children.

What is the psychological toll?

There have been countless reports of students and teachers experiencing severe emotional distress during and even long after high-intensity drills that simulate violent situations at school.

A 2021 study from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Social Dynamics and Wellbeing Lab found that active shooter drills in schools were associated with a 42% increase in stress and anxiety, 39% increase in depression and 23% increase in physiological health problems in children from as young as 5, up to high schoolers, teachers and parents.

Teachers who participated in the study recalled students “texting their parents, praying, crying” because they felt like “they were going to die” during these kinds of trainings. Parents noted that their children subsequently started experiencing “extreme reactions such as panic attacks and “downright fear” in response to innocuous things like hearing a fire alarm go off.

“The impact of these active shooter drills varies depending on the child, their understanding and interpretation of it, their past experiences and their personal worries and fears,” Dr. David J. Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, told HuffPost. “Children who are highly anxious or just a bit concerned may become more anxious and more concerned because going through these scenarios raises the perception of the likelihood that this might occur to a level that is not tolerable for them.”

He emphasized that frequent drills and discussions in anticipation of active shooter events gives children the expectation that these sorts of things will occur and that the world is an inherently unsafe place. This is particularly true with young children, who may develop a sense that there are lots of people out there looking to harm them, so they are in danger ― which shapes their mental well-being and the way they interact with the world.

“A common reaction is for a child to worry about their parents or caregivers’ safety as well,” said Stephanie Marcello, chief psychologist at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. “They may ask more questions like, ‘Where exactly are you going?’ and ‘What time are you coming home?’ My son now always says to me, ‘Be safe.’ He never did this before, but he says it all the time now.”

Law enforcement, first responders and students participate in a regional active shooter training at Deering High School in Portland, Maine.
Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Law enforcement, first responders and students participate in a regional active shooter training at Deering High School in Portland, Maine.

Schonfeld was the lead author of a 2020 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that called for a reexamination of the way schools conduct safety drills as it relates to threats like active shooters.

The statement notes that the fear-based trainings utilized in some school districts have the potential to cause considerable emotional trauma in children and calls out high-intensity active shooter drills that include actual weapons, theatrical makeup to create realistic images of blood and gunshot wounds and extreme acting from pretend attackers. Students and staff have also at times been led to believe they are experiencing an actual attack, rather than a drill.

“It should not be a surprise that there are reports of young children writing frantic notes while in lockdown, including one 7-year-old who wrote, ‘Love mom and dad’ with marker on her arm and later explained to her mother that it was ‘In case the bad guy got to us and I got killed, you and daddy would know that I love you’ after her body was discovered,” the text notes.

In addition to concerns about psychological harm, the statement also points to the scant evidence that these drills effectively prepare students and teachers for actual active shooter events.

One study cited “found that school personnel who completed active shooter training designed to train people to make decisions among various crisis response options (e.g., whether to run, hide or physically attack a shooter) were almost twice as likely to misjudge many critical action steps in simulations compared with untrained school staff who relied on common-sense actions.”

People also worry that because school shooters are often current or former students, these drills provide would-be attackers with insights that may help them maximize harm.

Is there a better way?

The AAP is not calling for schools to eliminate all active crisis drills. Instead, the group made recommendations to make these trainings less traumatic by conducting them more like fire drills ― that is to say, calmly, with a focus on safe movement and with no simulation of the actual crisis.

“There are reasons that, for a fire drill, we don’t simulate the sights, sounds and smells of an actual fire,” said Jonathan S. Comer, a psychology professor at Florida International University and director of the Network for Enhancing Wellness in Disaster-Affected Youth. “Stress and anxiety can significantly compromise attention, learning and memory.”

He also advised school personnel and other adults to monitor students’ emotional responses before, during and after drills and to provide support to those who seem overwhelmed.

“Kids who have previously experienced trauma or loss, or who suffer from anxiety or mood problems, can be particularly impacted by drills and may need extra support,” he said. “Kids prone to anxiety can be encouraged to ‘buddy up’ with assigned staff or other peers who are focused and calm. Parents should be encouraged to make sure their school knows if their child has experienced any major trauma or loss. Students with physical limitations, such as vision impairments, can also be encouraged to ‘buddy up’ with assigned staff or peers who do not have physical limitations.”

Amanda Nickerson, director of the University at Buffalo’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, noted that The National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officer, and Safe and Sound Schools have put together guidance for conducting these drills as well.

“The drills that have gotten media attention for people not knowing they are drills and that include props (fake guns, blood) and actors to get people to respond with different options like running, hiding and/or attacking the assailant are not advised given the high likelihood of doing harm,” she said.

Parents and caregivers can also help strike the right balance when it comes to making children feel prepared for a threat to their safety while not increasing their sense of fear or trauma.

“It’s important to promote open conversations at home,” Marcello said. “Make it clear to your child that you’re available to listen and talk.”

She recommended limiting your child’s exposure to the news and being aware of past traumas that may come up. Try to maintain their regular routine and pay attention to any emotional or behavioral changes.

“Normalize their emotions and keep any conversation age-appropriate,” Marcello added. “Focus on safety preparedness and how the community comes together to support each other and deal with the rare instances of danger.”

Are kids getting desensitized?

Beyond the traumatizing effect, there are also concerns that these drills have led children to become desensitized to the idea of school shootings. In the Georgia Tech study, some parents shared that their kids had rather unemotional responses to active shooter drills.

“Other reactions included avoiding talking about the school drill experience as a result of being desensitized; ‘It was like nothing happened. It was the same thing as breaking a pencil’ and ‘It’s just kind of part of their norm. She’s been doing it ever since she was in preschool.’”

“When drills are implemented responsibly, over time many kids do report experiencing drills as ‘no big deal,’” Comer noted.

He believes it’s OK for emergency drills to feel mundane as long as students are still participating and internalizing the safety information.

“Sometimes it is more alarming to parents to think about their children needing to do this than it is for the students themselves,” said Nickerson, noting that many parents did not experience lockdown drills or active shooter drills when they were in school.

She added that many young people may simply see these kinds of trainings ― if conducted according to best practices ― as just another set of procedures to follow in the unlikely case of an emergency.

“There could also be some desensitization or resignation that this is the world we live in,” Nickerson said. “Although we wish that we didn’t need these kinds of ways of preparing and responding, it is best to be prepared in the unlikely event that we need to know what to do to save lives.”

Schonfeld believes that the desensitizing effect stems less from the drills and exercises in schools and more from the horrific events themselves. He pointed to the seemingly stoic way many people respond these shootings today.

“A number of people have said to me, ‘This is our new normal.’ I say there’s nothing normal about children murdering children or adults murdering children,” Schonfeld said.

“Once we call it ‘normal’ we lower our expectation to change it, and I’m never going to be comfortable with that,” he added. “It’s our reality, but it’s a sad and frightening reality that we have lowered our outrage for something that’s outrageous, and as a society we have to rethink that. We need to come together and mount the effort to come up with solutions.”

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