Are schools losing their way in the age of active shooter training?

*this article was published by USA today

Recently I sat silently in a school staff meeting while our faculty debriefed after the previous month’s Active Shooter Training.  All kinds of thoughts and emotions ran through me as I listened to colleagues brainstorming possible ways to prepare for an armed intruder roaming our building.  Should we stash a hammer in our desk drawer for use as an improvised weapon? Keep a supply of feminine hygiene products on hand to stop the bleeding if someone is shot?  Have students ready to throw books at the attacker? But the absurdity of the entire conversation really hit home for me when a well-meaning staff member suggested teachers be given bags of marbles to throw down in the hallway in the event of an armed prowler.

It’s the Home Alone defense.

Have we completely lost our marbles?

There are about 133,000 K-12 schools in the United States.  Last year, 24 of them experienced shootings.  Despite the relative rarity of such events, the number of schools doing lockdown drills has doubled since 2004. 95% of public schools now regularly have students and teachers practice huddling in silence, hiding from an imaginary gunman.  Growing numbers of schools are preparing more aggressively for active shooter scenarios–in some cases even using fake bombs, AR-15s loaded with blanks, and students made up with realistic bloody bullet wounds.  At an Indiana elementary school earlier this year, teachers were forced to kneel against a classroom wall while local law enforcement unexpectedly shot them with plastic projectiles in a simulated execution.  They were told “This is what happens if you just cower and do nothing.”  

It’s important to note that the annual occurrence of school-associated violent deaths over the past quarter century has remained relatively consistent.  But over that same period, our actions in response to those deaths have changed completely, with our society placing ever-increasing responsibility for stopping school shootings on the schools themselves.  As schools have accepted this responsibility, we’ve opened our doors to police and military types to take the lead in telling us exactly how to prepare for an attack.  In doing so, we’ve ensured the conversation will remain largely centered around reactive approaches such as how best to bunker up and fight back instead of focusing on the underlying causes of the problem.  

We must also consider the psychological impact on students and staff alike of constantly calling attention to the potential for violence in our schools.  Heartbreaking stories are now regularly emerging about young children of the lockdown generation who, convinced they could be about to die, compose goodbye letters to their parents or even write wills to designate who can have their toys when they are gone.  Experts in childhood trauma say there is the potential for children who are regularly exposed to frightening circumstances to suffer from symptoms including “everything from worsening academic and social progression to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, post-traumatic symptomatology and substance abuse.”  This is not the nurturing school environment our students deserve.

On the teacher side, educators who already wear innumerable hats are now expected to endure the pressure of preparing to act as law enforcement and neutralize a maniac who may be armed with an assault weapon and intent on murdering their students.  How can that added stress not have a detrimental impact on their teaching and on their mental well being in general?

If our current lockdown and active shooter training culture were actually making us safer, then it might all be worthwhile.  It’s not. A recently published comprehensive review of school-based practices from 2000-2018 found that “none of the currently employed school firearm violence prevention methods have empirical evidence to show that they actually diminish firearm violence in schools.”  The study’s authors determined that our current ineffective approaches are creating a false sense of security and suggested that school officials refrain from giving in to “political pressures to ‘do something’ when that ‘something’ is likely to be ineffective and wasteful of limited school resources.”  

I understand the value of being prepared for disaster, and our schools have long-standing safety protocols in place for that reason.  However, we must be sure that the measures we are taking are actually serving their intended purpose and are not doing more harm than good.  We must stop expecting our educators to play the role of law enforcement and let them focus on teaching our children. And we must redirect every bit of energy we are currently putting into ineffective, potentially traumatizing non-solutions towards addressing the root causes and conditions that are contributing to the unique epidemic of gun violence in the United States.  

One thought on “Are schools losing their way in the age of active shooter training?

  1. Well said. Thank you. I’ll also add there are numerous sources available, many of which are free to schools and school communities, to help make our schools as safe as they can be. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, a singular focus on active shooter scenario drills is not only counter-productive, but it’s also counter-intuitive. A well-rounded emergency management program for schools would go a very long way toward helping to address the multi-faceted enigma that is school safety. If there’s one word in your essay that rings truer than others, it would be “reactive”. It’s ok to be reactive to an extent when planning and preparing for emergency and disaster events, but it would be much much better to be proactive and try to consider everything. I think you said that very well. I am providing a link to a blog page I wrote with a comprehensive, but by no means complete, list of school safety resources. I’ve been working on compiling this list since the massacre at Columbine High School (I’m a Columbine parent and retired emergency management specialist). If folks are aware of other resources they’d like to see added to the list, they can use the ‘contact’ form in the blog or they can post a comment with link to the site they’d like to see added. Again, well said in all respects. Parents and communities need to be much more proactive. You laid that missive out very well. Here’s the link I mentioned:

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