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Chelsea Younghans, M.D.,
APAF Child and Adolescent Fellow,
NCC Psychiatry Residency Program
When thinking of our most vulnerable population, we are often quick to consider children especially susceptible. We attempt to keep them safe by sending them to schools, typically seen as a protected place in society. What happens when that expectation of safety is not met, and our smallest and most defenseless population is put in grave danger?
On May 24, 2022, at around 11:30 AM an 18-year-old male student at Uvalde High School entered Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children between the ages of 10-11, two teachers and injured 17 others, including his grandmother, before he was shot by police. This is the deadliest shooting at an elementary school since Sandy Hook 10 years ago. Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas teaches second through fourth grades. The school had 535 students in the 2020-21 school year. About 90% of students are Hispanic and about 81% are economically disadvantaged. In light of this tragedy, politicians and education officials want schools to tighten security even more. But the rapid adoption of new security measures in recent years highlights how far schools have already gone—and raises questions about how much further they can and should go.
Using the most common definition of a mass shooting—an incident where 4 or more individuals are killed by perpetrators—studies have found that children and teens make up a high percentage of the victims killed in these tragedies. In 2019, children comprised 22% of the population in the United States and accounted for approximately 25% of victims in all mass shootings. According to the Washington Post, well over 200 instances of gunfire in K–12 schools have occurred in the United States in the past 20 years since the Columbine shooting. The most notable of them being tragedies at schools like Sandy Hook Elementary School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Although approximately 150 students and educators have been killed with twice as many injured by mass shootings; more than 236,000 students have been exposed to gun violence in schools.
One response to the increase in violence in schools has been implementing active shooter drills (often referred to as “lockdown drills”). These drills are meant to help students and teachers practice quickly locking the door and windows/blinds, finding cover in a classroom, remaining quiet and, in some instances, teaching students and educators how to create barricades, evacuate the school, and actively resist a shooter. The exact nature of these drills vary, but some are so realistic they involve a simulated shooter who “stalks the hall, checking classroom doors, listening for any noise that may indicate the presence of students.” In the United States, 92% of schools report having a plan in place for a shooting incident. Existing literature suggests that the threat of a crisis can negatively affect children's anxiety levels. Children of this generation are the first to have shooting-related drills as a regular aspect of their education. Given the growing fear regarding school shooting incidents, active shooter drills are likely to become a more common and routine component of the K-12 institutional structure.
One study by Moore et al. used a text polling service to survey 815 youth ages 14-24. Findings show that among a diverse sample of youth in the United States gun violence (82.6%) and active shooter drills (68.5%) impact a large majority of youth, many times in negative or unintentional ways. Shockingly, few youths in this study (6.7%) reported experiencing drills that follow national recommendations of Run. Hide. Fight. More than half of the youth in this study (60.2%) reported feeling unsafe, scared, helpless, or sad as a result of experiencing active shooter drills. Teens who practiced drills made it clear that these emotions reflect the serious implications of such experiences, “Active shooter drills make me feel afraid, because if you make a sound your life and the life of your classmates will be in danger.” Youth were also conflicted over the effectiveness of drills, with one describing them as “a necessary evil.” Although more than half (56.1%) stated that drills made students more prepared for an active shooter event, there was a lack of consensus over whether they make schools safer.
According to a new report by Everytown for Gun Safety, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers, unannounced active shooter drills are a detrimental and unproven school safety tactic. This report states “there is extremely limited research available on drills’ effectiveness.”
As the Everytown report points out, school safety is big business, and these drills are a $2.7 million industry. Eager to demonstrate decisive, quick action, school districts have purchased products including state-of-the-art surveillance technology, to metal detectors, facial recognition software, bullet-proof whiteboards, and fortified entries.
The large number of youths who note the negative impact of drills on their emotional well-being suggests that school administrators, counselors, and policy makers should consider methods that prioritize student emotional health. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends discussion-based exercises to be used before as part of their best practices for active shooter drills. It is even recommended that a school psychologist be involved in the planning and practice of drills.
For schools and districts that continue to conduct active shooter drills the organizations below advocate for avoiding drills simulating actual incidents, notifying parents, students, and teachers in advance of planned drills, creating age and developmentally appropriate content in conjunction with teachers and school-based mental health specialists, combining drills with support systems to address student well-being, and evaluating drill effectiveness.