School shooters represent a minuscule fraction of the risk to America’s schoolchildren. According to a 2018 Washington Post editorial, “the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000.” According to a recent article in The Atlantic: “The Washington Post has identified fewer than 150 people (children and adults) who have been shot to death in America’s schools since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, in Colorado. Not 150 people a year, but 150 in nearly two decades.”
Start an Emergency & Disaster Management degree at American Military University.
Nonetheless, 96% of America’s schools conduct lockdown drills meant to protect students from active shooters. These are required by state or local law in most cases.
The inordinate attention paid to a phenomenon that represents such a tiny proportion of the danger to school kids (a drop in the bucket compared to the danger they face from car accidents, for example) can only be justified if one assumes that the psychological impact of these shootings on students is disproportionately great. But what if these lockdown drills are actually what is creating most of the anxiety?
One problem with these drills is that some of them are so needlessly over the top that they almost seem designed to traumatize students. Examples abound. Here is one example from the Atlantic article cited earlier:
“At 10:21 a.m. on December 6, Lake Brantley High School, in Florida, initiated a ‘code red’ lockdown. ‘This is not a drill,’ a voice announced over the PA system. At the same moment, teachers received a text message warning of an active shooter on campus. Fearful students took shelter in classrooms. Many sobbed hysterically, others vomited or fainted, and some sent farewell notes to parents. A later announcement prompted a stampede in the cafeteria, as students fled the building and jumped over fences to escape. Parents flooded 911 with frantic calls. Later it was revealed, to the fury of parents, teachers, and students, that in fact, this was a drill, the most realistic in a series of drills that the students of Lake Brantley, like students across the country, have lately endured.”
When schools don’t tell students that drills are just drills, it can be positively terrorizing to students. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of “good-bye” texts hastily written by students to their parents during these drills. Most are simply too heart-breaking to quote in this post.
NBC News has reported that: “Over the past two decades, the drills have ramped up in intensity — with some schools going so far as to use fake blood and fire blanks at students. A drill last month at an Indiana school prompted outrage when teachers were shot execution-style with pellet guns, leaving them injured.”
It is high time for parents to ask tougher questions about who is designing these drills and what their expertise really is. The Columbine shootings created a massive demand for school security services, which is now a $3 billion per year industry. When there is a sudden massive new demand and lots of money flying around (that is no longer available for teachers, counselors, nurses, etc.), there is a lot of temptation for businesses to hold themselves out as experts. How much do parents really know about who is deciding to fire guns with blanks at their children and pellet guns at the teachers?
Perhaps even more importantly, there is little to no evidence that even better-designed drills do any good. According to James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University: “there is no evidence that [an active shooter drill] prepares people any better than in just instructing them verbally or in writing.”
There are much better uses for the resources that go into these unproven, traumatizing active-shooter drills. In terms of protecting schoolchildren from the very small risk of active shooters, the money would be better spent on hiring more counselors. After the Columbine shooting, the Secret Service and Department of Education studied 37 prior school shootings and found that “that in almost every instance, people had concern about the shooter and that the shooter had indicated need for help.”
More counselors might also help with a far greater danger to the lives of America’s schoolchildren: the growing suicide rate among young people. And, since there is probably significant overlap between the darkness that leads to harming oneself and harming others, more effective suicide intervention would probably do more to prevent school shootings than active shooter drills ever will.
Perhaps future research will lead to better, evidence-based practices for active shooter drills that can be shown to increase student safety without imposing needless trauma. But the burden should be on those proposing such drills to demonstrate their worth. The rush to mandate these drills was a product of panic. These mandates should be repealed, and we should begin again at a more measured pace. And educators should keep the wise aphorism “first do no harm” at the front of their minds.