How to Protect Students' Mental Health During Active Shooter Drills

Editor's Note

Read The Mighty’s full investigation on how schools are not preparing students with disabilities for emergencies. 

While drills for active shooters are not dangerous like actual crisis situations, they can still be mentally distressing for students, especially if the drills include an officer shooting blanks from a gun to simulate gunfire.

Navigating the need for preparedness and the potential harm from drills is hard, but it’s something schools are thinking more about in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Students need a positive learning environment, one that doesn’t make schools look like a “fortress,” said Irwin Redlener, M.D., director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

“We can make a school completely impenetrable with barbed wire, metal detectors and armed guards everywhere, but that’s not the environment that we believe is remotely good for children to be learning,” Redlener said. “I think we have to find that balance of ultimate preparedness and sustaining an environment that’s conducive to learning and a positive social experience for children as well.”

To protect students’ mental health, schools have to balance the need and method for preparedness and the potential mental distress drills could produce. The National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers created a document for guidance and considerations when practicing active shooter drills to ensure the physical and psychological health of students and staff.

While lockdown drills are somewhat universal for schools, some schools have introduced more in-depth drills that include simulated gunfire or the tackling of an “assailant,” which can be distressing for students and staff. During these types of drills, NASP and NASRO recommend staff observe other staff members and students for signs of distress such as physical responses and emotional reactions such as panic attacks. Anyone who has distress should be removed from the drill and have their physical or psychological needs addressed by the right personnel such as a mental health counselor.

While the document from NASP and NASRO states that active shooter drills can cause psychological harm, a report released after the Parkland shooting by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence confirms that students experience psychological harm from shootings even if they have not been exposed to gun violence.

According to the report, nearly 60 percent of high school students who have not been exposed to gun violence at school said they fear gun violence at their school or in their community. Nearly 40 percent of students who have been exposed to a shooting have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Drills and trainings are “well-intentioned,” but they “exacerbate underlying fears of gun violence,” the report stated. “These drills, however, can intensify the fear of gun violence children already suffer and train them to persistently worry about their own safety.”

“There ends up being zero learning going on because everyone is upset that you’ve scared the crap out of them,” Greg Crane, a former SWAT officer who teachers people strategies for handling mass shooting situations, told the Wall Street Journal.

Students should always have the choice to participate in drills, such as those that use simulated gunfire or where students implement “run, hide, fight.” Some of these programs include “attacking” the actor playing the armed assailant by throwing objects at them. Fighting or countering an assailant should always be considered a last resort, according to Safe and Sound Schools, an organization founded by two parents who lost their children in the Sandy Hook school shooting. Safe and Sound Schools also worked with NASP and NASRO on its guidance document.

Safe and Sound Schools does not recommend introducing “fight” to students who are younger or are in early developmental levels because it can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming and may not be physically possible.

If a student freezes during a drill instead of fighting back, they should not be told their reaction is “wrong or inadequate,” according to Safe and Sound Schools. It is better to build on practice to help students become more resilient and confident in their safety skills.

NASP and NASRO also provide guidance for practice considerations depending on the developmental level of participants. They break down the development levels by grade level or age, but the organizations say awareness and capacity to practice drills will vary on the individual. This would include people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities.

Students with disabilities may need to practice drills or preparedness skills more often than the general student population, which typically has two drills a year. Due to the need for more practice, there is an increased chance of psychological harm, so preparedness must be done in a way that is educational but not traumatic.

“Most people have no idea how frightened kids are during these lockdown practices or how visceral the fear is in the school environment after each school shooting occurs,” a special education teacher from Columbus, Ohio, told The Mighty under the condition of anonymity. “Many kids with disabilities struggle to understand how close or far away the shooting was and each one feels to them like it happens far more frequently and far more close to their school than in reality. It should not happen ever, but the relative risk is of no comfort to a child.”

Preparedness does not always have to be in the form of a drill. Preparedness could mean going over safety skills as if the teacher is going over an academic lesson. It could include a picture guide to show the students what to do if there’s a lockdown, according to an article written by special educators Laura Clarke, Ed.D., and Dusty Columbia Embury, Ed.D.

“We can’t let the fear of emergencies dictate everything that we do,” Columbia Embury said. “But if we think about survival skills in the same way that we do with academic skills or social skills, we use explicit instruction for them, we offer social narratives, we offer picture schedules, we use all kinds of different effective strategies to keep teaching some kind of content and then we provide multiple opportunities for practice in a safe way where they get feedback and have an opportunity to be successful.”

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