For years, American parents have had to grapple with a deeply disturbing question: How do I explain to my children why they’re being required to huddle close to their classmates, practicing what they’d do if a shooter was loose in their school?
But high-intensity active shooter drills could very soon be a thing of the past.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on Monday came out strongly against all but the calmest, most mild version of those drills. The group said the drills have the potential to cause substantial emotional trauma in children, while their effectiveness remains largely unproven.
The new recommendations coincide with an unprecedented moment in U.S. education, as millions of students are embarking on yet another round of full-time or partial remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts with the AAP believe that in many ways, the new policy statement is timelier than ever, as such drills would be a particular drain on schools’ limited resources and on children’s mental health reserves.
“I’m telling people right now that it makes very little sense to take all of these steps to physically distance people during the pandemic, and then ask them all to pack into a closet,” David Schonfeld, lead author of the statement and a developmental-behavioral pediatrician with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, told HuffPost.
“Some schools have to seek waivers because these active shooter drills are required on a regular basis,” he said
While still rare, school shootings have increased across the U.S. over the past decade and the majority of school districts across the country now require some form of active shooter drills.
But the AAP has grave concerns about the nature of these routines.
In some schools, drills have included actual weapons (with blanks), theatrical makeup and really extreme acting by the faux-perpetrator or perpetrators, the group says. At times, students and staff have been led to believe that they are living through an actual attack, not a drill.
To date, not much research has been conducted on the potential for emotional trauma linked to such exercises. But there are ample anecdotes. The AAP cited the example of a 7-year-old girl who wrote “love mom and dad” on her arm during a drill and later told her mom it was in case “the bad guy got to us and I got killed, you and daddy would know that I love you.”
“There’s no question in my mind that exercises and drills can be sensitizing to children who are vulnerable,” Schonfeld said.
In addition, evidence is lacking that many of the tactics or strategies being practiced on children are particularly effective.
One study cited by the AAP found that teachers who completed trainings to help them decide between various actions during a shooting scenario (whether to run or hide, for example) were twice as likely to make critical errors in judgment than teachers who did not receive any such training.
The AAP is not calling for an outright ban of all active crisis drills.
Instead, the group believes they should be made much more like fire drills: conducted calmly, with no simulation of the actual crisis (attack or fire) and focused on the safe movement of students and staff throughout a school building.
“We really have to be thinking about the consequences of continuous fear-based messages,” Schonfeld said, adding that he is considering not just active shooter drills in general, but their context this year amid the pandemic. Children are already aware that being physically present in a classroom brings with it certain risks.
“We really need to create a climate or culture where schools feel safe,” Schonfeld urged.
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