Since last year, every school in Illinois has been required by law to conduct active shooter drills to prepare students for potential violence. But two national teacher unions are calling for an end to the practice of simulating violence during such drills because of the potentially harmful effects they can have on the mental health of students and teachers.
The American Federation of Teachers and the National Educators Association, along with anti-violence group Everytown for Gun Safety, said they want to end “simulations that mimic an actual incident” of gun violence during school safety drills.
A paper jointly released Tuesday by the groups questions the benefits of involving students in active shooter drills at all and advises that, if children do participate, the drills should be announced beforehand, age-appropriate and designed to minimize trauma.
“They’re becoming more perverse and obscene. Hiring strangers to wear masks and rattle the doors of classrooms without letting students or faculty know, shooting teachers with rubber bullets, students with fake blood lying in the hallway being asked to play the role of victims. All of these things have caused us over the years to look at lockdown drills,” said Shannon Watts, founder of gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action.
“The more we’ve learned, the more clear it is we have to change the way we’re conducting active shooter drills.”
A law that went into effect last year requires Illinois school districts to “conduct at least one law enforcement drill that addresses an active threat or an active shooter within a school building.” Thirty-nine other states also have school shooter drill mandates, according to Everytown.
But as in Illinois, how they’re implemented seems to vary widely.
Several suburban districts and Chicago Public Schools said they don’t involve students in active shooter drills. Other schools do have students participate to varying degrees, but in most cases they’re warned ahead of time and the drills don’t simulate violence, officials say.
CPS drills “do not involve crisis simulations or resemble the drills the American Federation of Teachers is rightly concerned about,” according to a spokesman.
“Nothing is more important than the safety and wellbeing of our students, which is why state-mandated safety drills in CPS schools have been designed to avoid exposing students to potential anxiety or distress. CPS students do not participate in active shooter simulations, and all emergency response simulations are conducted when students are not in school,” said James Gherardi, a spokesman for Chicago Public Schools.
In Oak Park Elementary District 97, schools conduct lockdown drills that are observed by the Oak Park Police Department, a district spokeswoman said.
“We do not stage any type of reenactment that employs an individual acting as an assailant or implying or displaying a weapon,” spokeswoman Amanda Siegfried said.
Ken Wallace, superintendent of Maine Township High School District 207, said the issues raised in the new report aren’t new. He acknowledged that he, too, has concerns about the psychological impact that active shooter drills have on students and staff.
“I’ve seen the anxiety this can cause firsthand,” he said. “It’s the most unfortunate thing we do now in schools. And I don’t have a perfect answer for it.”
The district works with local police departments to provide active shooter training to school staff members, who in turn train students, Wallace said, adding school and law enforcement officials will continue to reassess the exercises.
Robert Lopez, executive director of crisis intervention and safety at Waukegan Community Unit School District 60, said he helps run drills at more than 20 buildings, including elementary and middle schools. The district provides online training beforehand to teachers, who inform students before the exercise and will also send a letter home with parents after it is completed.
“We don’t use an element of surprise,” Lopez said. “We are very cognizant that we don’t want to frighten our children.”
The drill does not involve fake weapons or acting, Lopez said, but a staff member, pretending to be the active threat, will walk around the school wearing an orange vest and using a megaphone to make noise. Based on the proximity, teachers are supposed to decide whether to stay in the classrooms and follow a lockdown procedure or evacuate.
“We understand these drills can sometimes be confusing for young students,” said district spokesman Nicholas Alajakis. “It can be scary because it is a difficult topic, but we do make an effort to alleviate that while still following best practices.”
State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat and sponsor of the legislation requiring schools to conduct annual active shooter drills, said the law is an unfortunate but necessary measure in today’s society.
The law does not specify how districts should run the drills — that’s left up to the schools and police agencies planning the exercise. Morrison said that while she hasn’t heard about drills that include traumatizing simulations or theatrics, parents who have concerns should contact their local administrators.
“It’s not appropriate for the SWAT team to dress up and run in with guns blazing,” Morrison said. “This is all done locally. This is done with a school and a local police department walking through what makes the best sense.”
In many cases, the drills are analogues to the ones meant to prepare students for a fire or extreme weather. The law also allows school administrators to exempt children with special needs from participating in active shooter drills, a concern that was first raised by social workers, Morrison said.
Everytown advocates for approaches that don’t just involve law enforcement.
“Schools need to develop age-appropriate content, and it needs to be multidisciplinary. Not just law enforcement (but) school mental health professionals, teachers, students. It needs to have trauma-informed content. And because there’s a lack of research, schools really need to be keeping track of the efficacy and effects of these drills,” said Rob Wilcox, deputy director of policy and strategy at Everytown.
The two unions and Everytown released a report last year outlining their support for a handful of school safety proposals but remained neutral on the use of school shooter drills. Tuesday’s paper cited both academic research and media reports on the effects of these drills in calling for their end.
“Everytown, AFT, and NEA do not recommend these drills for students and believe schools should carefully consider these impacts before conducting live drills that involve students and educators,” their report stated.
A study cited by Everytown noted that the percentage of schools participating in lockdown drills grew from 40% in the 2005-06 school year to 95% in the 2015-16 school year. But it’s not clear how often schools run drills involving masked gunmen, mock weapons or other potentially triggering responses.
“We do not recommend training for students. But we do know that 95% of schools do some sort of (lockdown drill),” Wilcox said. “We need to put into place some guardrails to protect against collateral consequences and negative impact.”
School lockdowns and lockdown drills are also used in other scenarios, such as when there’s a threat outside the school. Everytown’s recommendations don’t call for ending those — just the simulation of violence.
“As someone who’s been at the intersection of schools and mental health for a while, we’ve had growing concern,” said Colleen Cicchetti, executive director of the Center for Child Resilience at Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital. “It’s really great to me teachers unions are coming out with this today. People who we were aiming to protect were students and teachers, and the fact that teachers are saying the cost of doing this and stress it’s causing for them and students outweighs any benefit is really important to the conversation.”
Watts, of Moms Demand Action, said she’s heard from parents whose children were introduced to the concept of catastrophic violence through these drills and went on to fear school, lose sleep, see their academic performance decline, or develop anxiety or depression. Some students have wet themselves or suffered asthma attacks during drills, and some won’t wear shoes with lights for fear of attracting a shooter.
“We may be doing more harm than good,” Watts said. “It has to start with intervening before gun violence happens, as opposed to asking kids to run hide and fight.”
Aside from not mimicking actual incidents, the group said parents and students should both be told about the drills before they begin. How people experience an event can have an effect on whether it’s traumatic, and if a child isn’t aware that what they’re experiencing is a drill, it can trigger a survival response or other physical reactions common to traumatic events.
Having some debriefing period afterward — regardless of whether the children were surprised — is important to help buffer against potential long-lasting effects, said Amanda Moreno, a professor at Erikson Institute, a graduate school focused on early childhood trauma.
“If you don’t have an immediate safe space to deal with a situation like that, it’s more likely the situation will get etched in the memory and etched in the brain and in the stress physiology. If there’s that buffer … at the very least you need that immediate safety reaction,” she said.