(The Hill) — Schools are desperate to protect their students from the rising threat of mass shootings, but experts say the very measures being deployed for safety are in fact traumatizing entire generations of American youth.
There were 51 school shootings in 2022, according to a tracker from Education Week, directly impacting thousands of students.
By comparison, 95 percent of U.S. schools have shooter lockdown practice, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, affecting millions of students each year.
Sarah Burd-Sharps, senior director of research at Everytown, said, “Active shooter drills are actually harmful” for students.
“The cumulative impact of shooter drills, lockdowns, metal detectors, armed teachers, and other school-hardening measures is an environment that feels inherently unsafe for America’s schoolchildren,” Burd-Sharps said.
In 2020, Everytown analyzed millions of tweets and 1,000 Reddit posts using machine-learning psychological affect classifiers, studying posts from both before and after school lockdown drills. Based on the use of words such as “afraid,” “suicidal” and “irritability,” they said there was a 42 percent increase in anxiety around the drills and a 39 percent increase in depression.
The situation is coming to a head in New York, where schools are required to do four lockdown drills a year. Lawmakers want to drop that requirement down to one, with parents given the option to opt their child out of the drill entirely due to mental health concerns.
“If you enter the school system as a 3-year-old and you exit as an 18-year-old, you will have done 60 lockdown drills,” Robert Murtfeld, a parent in New York advocating for the new law, told Chalkbeat New York in an interview published last week. “This is not about making anyone less safe — this is about being smart about what is the best-mediated solution.”
The issue is not only the drills themselves but the way many schools conduct them.
Nancy Rappaport, a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says lockdown practices are “conducted in a pretty poor, chaotic way.”
Schools often do not do a debriefing of high-risk students, such as those previously involved in shootings or trauma in that area, causing further damage, Rappaport said. There have even been incidents where schools did not tell students the situation was only a drill until after it was over.
“I’ve had several kids who have been involved with school shootings […] and then they have to do lockdowns. And that’s really, really hard. Talk about a triggering event when you’ve been in a school that might have had a school shooting and then you return to school and you’d have to keep practicing these drills,” Rappaport said.
In 2022, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found school shootings were at their highest in 20 years, though still a tiny fraction of U.S. gun deaths — less than 1 percent, according to the 2020 report from Everytown for Gun Safety.
So far this year, there have been 21 school shootings, according to a Washington Post database. Among them, eight children were killed, six of them at the Nashville Christian school shooting in April.
Meanwhile, preparations for potential mass shooter events can make students feel unsafe in a building that is a safe space for youth. And younger children may not always be able to tell that they aren’t in real danger.
“Their idea of what’s reality and what’s pretend-play are pretty close together,” Rappaport said.
“So when you’re having kids practice a lockdown, what they start to do is called repetitive play, where they repeat the idea that there’s a lockdown happening and that people have to hide and things are unsafe, and that’s another kind of trauma reaction,” she added.
And the evidence is not clear whether these drills are actually useful in a real situation, nor whether other school safety measures will help students more than hurt them.
“I think if that’s used as an opportunity to get a lot more police in schools, more dogs to sniff students, more metal detectors, more video cameras to surveil students, more guns that teachers or other people carry on, that’ll be a mistake in my mind,” said Ron Avi Astor, professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA, adding that “people will feel justified in really fortifying our schools into little mini prisons.”
Experts have been pushing for a more trauma-informed approach to school safety issues and addressing concerns about school shootings.
Rappaport advocates for schools to have a threat assessment team that can speak to the plans for evacuation in an emergency, but says actual drills are unnecessary.
“I’ve heard some people talk about every time you get on a plane people give you warnings about how to manage if there’s a plane crash, but they don’t do a simulated crash,” she said.