As the nation marks two years since the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting in Florida, some schools are doing drills that nearly re-create its horrific circumstances, in which a former student killed 17 and injured 17 on Valentine’s Day 2018 in America’s deadliest high school shooting to date.
One response to the plague of school shootings has been a rush to ramp up school security measures — including simulations of what happens when shots ring out on a school campus. Some drills involve the sounds of gunfire, “victims” lying on the floor or a role-playing gunman rattling classroom door handles.
But such all-too-realistic exercises can do more harm than good. Traumatizing students — especially younger ones — is not the way to protect them.
That’s why a national teacher union call to reconsider active shooter drills constitutes sound advice. Last week, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund recommended ending unannounced shooter drills as well as drills that simulate shooter actions.
That recommendation is backed up by a National Association of School Psychologists’ warning that overly graphic realistic drills involve risks. If they’re not done properly, counselors say, such drills can cause physical and psychological damage. NASP recommends that school-employed mental health professionals should be involved in every stage of training, and parental consent should be mandatory.
Nationally, about 95% of schools drilled students on lockdown procedures in the 2015-16 school year, according to a recent survey. More than 4.1 million students experienced at least one lockdown in the 2017-18 school year alone, according to a 2018 analysis by the Washington Post — including at least 220,000 kindergartners and preschoolers.
In Minnesota, state statutes require school boards to adopt a “crisis management’’ policy to respond to potential violent situations. That policy must include at least five school lockdowns, five fire drills and one tornado drill. We nearly all can remember school fire drills that taught youngsters what to do in case of fire without unduly frightening them.
During a meeting with the Editorial Board this week, several metro area school superintendents and board members said their districts meet state law requirements but don’t conduct graphically realistic exercises. Rather, they said, like many state districts they make their safety protocols more transparent and avoid using “active shooter’’ in drill descriptions. Rather, they emphasize procedures that should be followed in the event of a range of emergency situations that could include someone bringing in or firing a gun.
And the superintendents emphasized the need for additional mental health services as prevention. They said increasing numbers of their students experience trauma and other untreated psychological and emotional problems that can be barriers to learning. Those types of mental health issues have also been found in many teen and young adult shooters.
While well-intentioned, graphic shooter drills involving kids ought to be dropped.