A smarter approach to active shooter drills

This is the April 18, 2022, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

One Alabama middle school asked students to bring canned goods to hurl at shooters. In a few Missouri schools, volunteer drama students were painted with bleeding bullet wounds and acted out their own deaths as faux gunmen ran around campus shooting blanks.

And in San Marino High School in February 2020, the reach for realism went a little too far. City police officers planned to fire blank cartridges for 11 minutes, to familiarize students with the sound of gunfire. The district wound up canceling its active shooter drill after the American Civil Liberties Union intervened.

In their zeal to prepare for a shooting emergency on their campuses, school districts across the nation have gravitated toward hyperreal simulations like these, despite some experts’ concerns that the realism may distress or traumatize kids.

After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School 10 years ago, the US Department of Education recommended expanding the lockdown-only approach for schools, and allowed administrators to make more independent decisions about how to protect their students.

But there’s been a growing concern in recent years that active shooter drills are ineffective and not worth the psychological harm they may cause students. In a 2020 report by the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund and the nation’s two largest teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Assn., the organizations called for an end to drills that are unannounced or simulate gun violence. Everytown researchers analyzed 28 million social media posts and found that active shooter drills were correlated with an uptick in posts that signaled stress, anxiety and depression among students, parents and teachers.

Trauma-informed opinions on how to prepare for school shootings vary, from being extra mindful in implementing drills to scrapping them altogether. The National Assn. of School Psychologists, for example, does not endorse any specific type of training but recommends against “highly sensorial drills” that mimic a real shooting.

“There’s no doubt that you need to practice certain protocols in order to know how to use them. But how we go about this practice is really important,” said Melissa Reeves, former president of the National Assn. of School Psychologists and author of the organization’s safety and crisis preparedness curriculum. “They can be done in very responsible ways, or ways that traumatize.”

I spoke with Reeves and other experts about how districts can minimize the potential harm of drills.

Why the concern?

Most kids and teens know intellectually that a drill is just a drill. But their bodies may not know the difference.

Our survival brains — otherwise known as the amygdala, which activates the fight-or-flight response — are constantly scanning the environment for threats. When shooter drills or lockdowns are realistically depicted, our amygdala may signal to our bodies that danger is afoot, even if it’s clearly a practice scenario, said Abi Blakeslee, a somatic therapist and teacher who works with children in Montana. This is especially true for kids with trauma histories.

Schools usually return to regular classroom instruction immediately without processing the drill with students, experts told me. When the survival brain is turned on but isn’t made to feel safe again, kids’ nervous systems are thrown into dysregulation.

This may be even more of a problem for kids nowadays, as so many are chronically stressed because of the pandemic. Their survival brains are more likely to perceive drills as threatening, explained Elizabeth Stanley, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and author of “Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive during Stress and Recover from Trauma.”

Symptoms of dysregulation look different depending on the kid. Children may act anxious, hyperactive, withdrawn, or throw tantrums. They could have stomach aches or headaches, or night terrors and bedwetting. They might fear being alone.

These potential consequences of active shooter drills are reason enough to reconsider how they’re done. But Stanley notes that students may not be able to fully metabolize what they’re learning in the drills if they’re super stressed. That stress may even affect their performance in the classroom.

“We have to make sure we are not focusing so much on the dangers that these students can never feel a sense of safety and security,” Reeves said. “The highly sensorial drills make them hypervigilant, always waiting for something scary to happen at school, and then it’s much harder for them to focus on academics.”

A better way

The National Assn. of School Psychologists says students should always be warned that a drill is going to occur and parental consent should be obtained. Teachers and staff should be trained to recognize common trauma reactions, and students should have access to mental health support after the drill.

“Before the drill, talk to students through the different steps you’re going to take. Allow them to ask questions,” Reeves told me. “After you talk them through it, walk them through it. How do we calmly practice the protocol? We do this with fire drills all the time. And then leave space for a Q&A afterwards. Find out how it went for them, how they’re feeling.”

Stanley agrees that students should be given the opportunity to understand intellectually why they are doing these drills, and a safe space to emotionally process the experience. But kids should also be given tools to physically recover. Movement and unstructured play after a drill helps students purge stress hormones and regulate their nervous systems.

“Give them opportunities to giggle and laugh. Let the whole group get a little punch drunk together,” Stanley said. “That’s a sign their systems are moving back into balance.”

Blakeslee recommends speaking about the drills in a way that gives students agency and promotes feelings of safety — for example, “we are protecting our classroom from threats outside.”

“Celebrate your ability to take action together,” she said.

Jillian Peterson, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University who studies school shootings, takes a harder line against drills. She advocates for training teachers and staff in safety protocols and keeping kids out of it. To date, she said, there’s no evidence that schoolwide drills lead to fewer casualties.

Her research shows that 91% of school shootings are carried out by current or former students. Drills could in fact show school shooters how to circumvent safety measures, Peterson argues.

Instead, districts should invest in prevention: robust mental health supports and social-emotional learning, universal trauma screenings and anonymous reporting tools that enable students to report peers’ troubling behavior, she said.

“If we’re hurting our kids in the process of trying to protect them,” Peterson said, “we really have to take a look at that.”

75 years later, a fight for equality marches on … & more

In 1947, Sylvia Mendez’s parents and four other Orange County families won a landmark class-action court case that allowed her to leave the neglected “Mexican school” she was forced to attend and enroll in a whites-only school with a beautiful playground she still remembers with a smile. Mendez, et al. vs. Westminster School District of Orange County helped lead to the desegregation of California schools and influenced the legal arguments that were used in Brown vs. Board of Education seven years later, when the US Supreme Court declared that separate schools based on race were unconstitutional.

But students in California still face de facto segregation and Latinx students are being left behind, writes my colleague Paloma Esquival. So Mendez keeps telling her story in hopes of persuading young people to fight for their own education.

After months of suspense over their college acceptance decisions, the seniors at Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles were much in need of a cathartic event: a college rejection party. Like tens of thousands of other high school seniors, these students — mostly children of Latinx and Asian immigrants — pushed through two years of pandemic isolation to stay focused on their college dreams and survived a brutally competitive year marked by record-shattering applications to the University of California. Read this feature by Times writer Teresa Watanabe about how these high-achieving students celebrated their college-admissions season wins and defeats.

The son of immigrants from Mexico and Honduras traveled from South Los Angeles to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he helped build NASA’s Psyche spacecraft that will travel to an asteroid in search of information about our own planet’s core. This column by Steve Lopez chronicles the journey of 34-year-old Luis Dominguez, a product of LA Unified and Cal Poly Pomona, who is helping unlock some of the mysteries of the universe.

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What else we’re reading this week

Bay Area families of all socioeconomic backgrounds are increasingly opting out of nearby public schools in favor of charter, private or home schools. Many are continuing with alternative schooling options that worked for them at the height of the COVID pandemic. Families are also moving as housing costs skyrocket, and those who stay are having fewer children. The Mercury News

Throughout the pandemic, the American public has struggled to be scientifically literate enough to separate well-grounded scientific findings from social media-driven fiction. But the shortage of qualified science educators is hurting efforts to help young citizens learn how science works. To fill the gap, districts are hiring teachers without a strong science background. USAToday

The sudden shift to remote instruction in March 2020 had a “disproportionate impact” on students who were learning English, a new report reveals. The pandemic exposed the lack of resources that English-learning students face in receiving an equitable education. EdSurge

A new generation of activist parent organizations has emerged in public education, including groups that represent underrepresented families and communities. Others represent conservatives who see education as a means to push back against what they view as damaging cultural shifts. Desert News

After rocky teacher shortages that saw classrooms led by police officers, the National Guard and even a governor, a small but growing number of states are approving significant pay raises for teachers. New York Times

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