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Report: Active shooter drills are harming students' mental health, schools should reassess policies

School safety
Posted at 9:02 PM, Feb 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-12 01:22:21-05

DENVER -- The two largest teachers unions in the country want schools to rethink active shooter drills, asserting Tuesday that they can harm students’ mental health and that there are better ways to prepare for the possibility of a school shooting.

The report by The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), in partnership with the advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety, found that, "Although nearly all students and educators experience drills, and a $2.7 billion dollar industry has grown up around the anguish of parents and school staff and the desperate feeling that we must “do something,” there is extremely limited research available on drills’ effectiveness."

It goes on to state that while there is almost no research pointing to their effectiveness in preventing school shootings or protecting a community when school shootings do happen, the drills end up doing more harm than good where "students, teachers, and staff have experienced distress and sometimes lasting trauma as a result of active shooter drills."

“What they found is that a lot of these active shooting drills are not effective in preparing or helping students get ready for a horrific event like this. In fact it may be hurting,” said Colorado Education Association Vice President Kevin Vick.

The report specifically points out active shooter drills that use noise to replicate the sound of gunshots inside school buildings, something Denver Public Schools stays away from.

“We don’t do active shooter drills. We do lockdown drills across the district,” said Melissa Craven, the director of the Denver Public Schools Emergency Management division. “We try to minimize the impact on making them as efficient and quiet as possible,” she added.

The lockdown drills are quiet, but unannounced, something the report suggests should be modified with the following six recommendations to protect students' well being:

  1. Drills should not include simulations that mimic an actual incident;
  2. Parents should have advance notice of drills;
  3. Drills should be announced to students and educators prior to the start;
  4. Schools should create age and developmentally appropriate drill content with the involvement of school personnel, including school-based mental health professionals;
  5. Schools should couple drills with trauma-informed approaches to address students’ well-being; and
  6. Track data about the efficacy and effects of drills.

"You don't know if it's a drill or if it's real. You have to take everything seriously,” one student who did not want to be identified for this story told Denver7 Tuesday.

"There's a lot of times they (go) off and there's no announcement, and every time - I know me and a couple other students think, did a student pull this and set it up when we're all in a big crowd?" said another student who wanted to remain anonymous. "Happens with lockdown drills, fire drills,” another student added.

“If they’re kind of sprung on people, that creates a lot of chaos in school (which) inflict trauma. The kids are scared,” Vick said.

DPS officials said they've received a few calls from parents about kids dealing with anxiety due to the drills, and explained they try to work with them when those issues appear, but added they believe the drills are necessary to protect the kids.

“A lockdown is the most valuable tool that we have in ensuring that safety,” Craven added.

The AFT and the NEA have a list of recommendations on how to respond to active shooter situations. You can view the full report, as well as those recommendations, by clicking here.