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Active Shooter Drills Stress Kids but Are Needed, Experts Say

Schools should incorporate active shooter training gradually with students, starting with simple education, then working to evacuation drills and barricading. The fight stage should be omitted when working with young kids.

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(TNS) — Realistic active shooter drills can cause stress and trauma for young schoolchildren, but in a growing climate of gun violence, psychologists and survival experts say the training is necessary to prepare for the worst.

There have been 261 mass shootings so far this year in the United States, according to Gun Violence Archive, a statistic that schools across the nation are coming to grips with by implementing safety plans that include active shooter drills, a practice that can create a great deal of anxiety for some students, said Suffolk University psychology professor David Langer.

“Active shooter drills can be quite scary and potentially quite traumatizing for children,” said Langer, adding that surprise drills or drills that are very realistic can significantly increase stress and anxiety levels in children.

According to Boston Public Schools' emergency management plan, schools conduct two “safe mode” and “internal threat” drills a year.

Safe mode procedures are for an external threat like a shooter outside the building, and require staff to shut off classroom lights, lock the doors, move students away from windows and doors, and prepare to barricade.

Internal threat procedure, which addresses a shooter inside the school, involves using the “Run, Hide, Fight” tactic in which occupants use their own judgment to get far away from the building, barricade or confront the attacker.

Debate about active shooter drills has heated up across the nation, especially in cities like Danville, Ky., where one active shooter drill was reported to include fake bullets, blood and dead bodies.

Langer said there is not much evidence that shows the drills are extremely effective, saying that they can be counterproductive if a traumatic response is triggered in some students.

To avoid any risk of anxiety, schools need to take careful consideration in planning the drills and inform students and staff when they are going to happen, Langer said.

“I think it’s pretty clear that if you’re going to have drills, they should be done in the least anxiety-provoking way possible and focused on what behaviors you’re looking to teach,” said Langer, suggesting schools replace loud alerts with spoken announcements, pair students with a buddy, and check in with students after the drill is over.

During the 2015-16 school year, 95 percent of public schools in the country ran lockdown drills, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Gershon Ben Keren, head protection instructor at Active Shooter Boston, which offers tactical survival training, runs such drills at schools in New England all the time.

Ben Keren said presentation to young students is crucial to avoiding stress or trauma. “We need to present it in the same kind of clinical light that we do with fire drills without getting sensational about it or graphic.”

Schools should incorporate active shooter training in a gradual way with students, first starting with simple education about the topic, then working to evacuation drills and barricading. He said the fight stage should be left out when working with young children.

Ben Keren said the students he works with are often “looking for someone to tell them what to do and when somebody does, I think that is more of a relief than a fear-invoking thing.”

Many drills often skip over an important part of the active shooter training, said Ben Keren, which is knowing to look for warning signs that someone may have violent tendencies.

“There are so many warning signs along the way. Kids don’t just pick up a gun one day and decide to commit a mass spree shooting. There’s a path to that,” Ben Keren said.

Both the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the National Association of School Psychologists have created guides for conducting active shooter drills at schools.

NCTSN suggests incorporating a lockdown response but also an option-based approach in which staff and students can take different actions such as running or hiding if confronted with a shooter.

NASP also recommends option-based responses, and its guide says a mental health professional should be involved in every step of active shooter drill planning.


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