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'Terrified': Teachers, kids hit hard by shooter drills
Teachers at an Indiana elementary school were left bruised, bleeding and frightened after being shot "execution style" with plastic pellets during an active-shooter training exercise in January, according to the Indiana State Teachers Association.
It's shocked teachers, parents and psychologists alike, renewing the debate around active shooter and lockdown drills: Where is the line between preparing teachers and students and traumatizing them? Are drills effective in preventing school shooting deaths? Or harmful to all involved who, despite the seeming ubiquity of school shootings, are unlikely to endure one?
"The teachers were terrified, but were told not to tell anyone what happened," the Indiana State Teachers Association said on Twitter. "Teachers waiting outside that heard the screaming were brought into the room four at a time and the shooting process was repeated."
The drill in Monticello was conducted by the White County Sheriff's Department. Teachers were supposed to be receiving what is called ALICE training, which is used in thousands of schools around the country.
"In that situation you are helpless, in that situation you are in pain, in that situation you feel danger. And those are the markers that define trauma," said clinical psychologist Azmaira Maker.
Lockdown drills have been around for decades, but as fear of school shootings has intensified, they have become more widespread and elaborate. According to a 2016 Government Accountability Office survey, almost all of the nation’s public schools participated in lockdown drills the previous year, and 67 percent held active shooter drills. Those that did not said they were concerned the exercise, which often involves a live simulation of an armed assailant, would create too much fear.
It's already known that lockdown and active shooter drills can "produce anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms in some students or staff," according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
Yet nearly all schools conduct one or the other, some multiple times per year, though some psychologists say there is scant evidence some of these approaches are effective.
"We are living in a reactive time where schools are adopting policies which have no evidence of protecting schools and can actually create more anxiety for staff and kids — hiding under desks, arming kindergartners with cans of food is the wrong direction," said Nancy Rappaport, a part time associate professor in psychiatry at Harvard medical school. "Building safe communities is about creating caring relationships, anonymous tip lines and a culture where kids share their concerns."
NASP said research supports the effectiveness of lockdown drills when best practices are used, but more data is needed to determine the effectiveness of armed assailant drills.
The dangerous element of surprise
NASP says one of the most important things schools can do when conducting an active shooter lockdown drill is to prepare people for what's going to happen.
"Those teachers from Monticello did not expect what they were put through," said AFT Indiana President GlenEva Dunham, who said drills for her teachers have not been nearly as intense. "We all go in open-minded ... but what they did to those teachers, not to give them warning of what they were up against — they were welted up and bleeding. You don't do people like that."
Sara Zaske has two children, a 9-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. She said both have had lockdown drills at their schools without warning. Her son was so upset that she wrote a letter to her school district last year expressing concern about the "surprise" lockdowns. She says she never received a response.
"[My son] finds it very frightening," Zaske said. "I tell him to be calm. I also tell him despite the rise in active shooters, and you hear these horrible stories, it's still incredibly rare. It's really unlikely there's a shooter in his school."
A January report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found school-associated homicides represent less than 2% of all youth homicides in the United States.
While students had "duck and cover" drills in the 1950s to prepare for nuclear war, students and teachers had never seen nuclear bombs dropped on U.S. soil. Today students and teachers have seen school shootings happen in communities all over the country with TV news and social media broadcasting details of the tragedies on loop.
"Some kids could be seeing images on social media of shootings in Parkland and New Zealand — spending a lot of time feeling like the world is an unsafe place," said Katherine Cowan, staff liaison for NASP's school safety and crisis work and co-author of their armed assailant drill guidance document. "And without social support networks to help them move away from that kind of thinking, they could be at risk for having a more significant reaction to these kinds of drills."
It's a bigger deal to some teachers and kids
Active shooter drills can be frightening for anyone. The threat of danger, even when simulated, can feel very real. But for people who have experienced previous trauma, active shooter lockdown drills can be especially triggering, mental health experts say.
"If kids or teachers have had a history of trauma — even if you tell them we're doing a lockdown drill Tuesday and this is what's going to happen — when they're physically in the situation and they're re-experiencing the significant danger, the physical memories in your body and your brain just fire up," Maker said.
Maker said that's why it's important for schools to work with psychologists and education specialists in the planning of drills. Schools may even be able to identify ahead of time, through school counselors, kids who should not participate, whether because of trauma or sensorial issues.
Some experts question how lifelike these simulations need to be. You don't dive the plane and fill the cabin with smoke to teach people to put their oxygen masks on, Cowan said.
"How you react is going to vary — if you're a 65-year-old teacher who has a heart problem, or a 6-year-old child who has high anxiety, or you are a kid whose parents are going through a divorce — you're more vulnerable, and that can lead to a stronger reaction," she said.
Active-shooter drills proliferated after the Columbine school shooting in 1999, when law enforcement realized that they needed better understanding of how to stop a shooter in a school setting.
"There is value in law enforcement and lead school administrators understanding things like whether communications are working properly or what the layout of the school is," Cowan said. "But when you start to add groups of people into that simulation who are outside of that nexus, that's when you see additional risks."
Is there a better way?
NASP says there are ways to mitigate the psychological effects of lockdown and active drills, including:
- Follow best practices: NASP suggests all schools reference the Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills, which it helped develop to provide guidance on factors schools should consider when conducting armed assailant drills, including prior trauma and special needs.
- Plan: Let teachers, children and parents know a drill is going to take place. Do not surprise them. Always announce lockdown drills when they are happening.
- Opt-out: Give people the option not to participate, especially when props, such as airsoft guns, are used.
- Monitor during the drill: If someone is exhibiting signs of trauma, remove them.
- Feedback: When developing a plan for drills, give people the ability to provide feedback on what worked and what didn't.
Feedback is important because the efficacy and impact of these drills is still being determined.
"If you're using pellets, do a survey ... ask participants, did you have nightmares, sleeplessness, anxiety?" Maker said. "In any situation if you're caught and you're being hurt you're going to have a psychological reaction."
Cowan said lockdown drills can be done in ways that are thoughtful and responsible, and that even for more extreme versions of active shooter drills, there are strategies to conduct the exercises appropriately.
"We feel strongly that drills and practicing are very important," Cowan said. "It's not, 'don't do it'. It's what you do and how you do it that's really important."
Dunham says what teachers want is to be a part of the conversation.
"My thing is, ask us what we want," Dunham said. "They didn't ask us if wanted active drills. They just decided. We've got a lot to say, but no one ever listens. They just want us to go into the classroom and teach, but we know the world is a lot bigger than that."