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Opinion: School active shooter drills aren't making our kids safe
James Alan Fox
Published 11:09 a.m. ET May 4, 2023 | Updated 1:54 p.m. ET May 4, 2023

There was a time when school drills meant practicing multiplication tables and expanding one’s vocabulary. But for students of this millennium, they involve barricading the classroom door and sitting quietly in the corner during an active shooter simulation - possibly featuring fake blood pretend victims, and someone playing the role of an armed assailant lurking about in the hallways. And to enhance the sense of realism, some schools stage unannounced drills, even going so far as declaring over the PA system that it is not just a drill - like an unannounced, realistic drill held in December at the Hawthorn Center in Northville that prompted four parents and six workers to file suit against the youth facility.

Michigan law requires schools to hold three lockdown drills a year. The hope is that students and faculty will be prepared, should some dispirited student or deranged intruder decide to turn the school into a battle zone.

These drills are well-intentioned. But despite positive comments from some survivors, there is no hard evidence that these drills actually make children safer. To the contrary, they appear to do considerable harm to the emotional well-being of many students, needlessly scaring impressionable youngsters by reinforcing the notion that they are in constant danger.

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A recent analysis by a team from Georgia Tech of social media posts from students in more than one hundred schools, before and after an active shooter drill, showed a significant increase in messages reflecting stress, fear and despair in the wake of these exercises. No wonder that professional organizations of educators " the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association " as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics have expressed deep concerns over the negative effects of active shooter drills.

Emergency drills are nothing new to the school day, of course. Drills to prepare students in the event of fire are commonplace, but hardly scary. Students are well-aware of the tragedies at Uvalde, Texas, and Parkland, Florida, but who can recall a school fire making headlines?

More: Opinion: College campus shootings aren’t common. Let’s not turn campuses into fortresses.

The psychological harm that may come from shooting drills is not warranted, considering the low probability that such an event will actually occur. According to FBI data on active shooter events, from 2000 through 2022 there was a total of 48 incidents in K-12 schools - an average of two per year. And that’s out of more nearly 130,000 public and private schools in America.

It is one thing to prepare the faculty and staff for what to do and how to instruct students in the case of a violent episode; it is quite another to involve children whose innocence need not be compromised. Furthermore, it is far from certain that students would recall what they had learned during occasional lockdown drills amidst the panic associated with the real thing.

More: It was a drill, not a real shooter. But no one told workers or children at youth hospital.

More: How to prepare your child to cope with lockdown drills

The potential downside of active shooter drills involves more than just traumatizing students. There are a few students for whom the opportunity to wreak havoc on their schoolmates can seem exhilarating, inspiring them to call in a false threat - like the rash of threats made in Michigan schools after the Oxford shooting and the so-called "swatting's" that have hit schools around the country. At the extreme, an assailant could use what was learned from participating in drills as strategic intel for planning an attack, as the Parkland school shooter reportedly did.

School shootings are not the only rare yet terrifying events for which emergency training and preparedness can help to save lives. School officials can learn an important lesson of moderation and restraint from other venues that grapple with improbable yet deadly hazards, be they of natural or intentional origin.

Commercial airlines train their flight crews to handle disaster situations - such as the unlikely "water landing"- but passengers are only asked to watch a brief demonstration of grabbing hold of oxygen masks, without having actually to practice this maneuver. Cruise ships require that guests don life jackets and learn the location of their muster stations, but no one must step foot inside a lifeboat. In case of a catastrophe in the air or at sea, the passengers will be directed where to go and advised what to do.

More: My school's lockdown drills, active shooter training are security theater. Yours are, too.

This same reasonable posture should apply to schools: Prepare the staff, but spare the students. As with the usual pre-flight or pre-cruise protocols, a few simple instructions on escape strategy may be sensible. However, overpreparing students needlessly risks intensifying their fears and anxiety. And if active shooter drills are required by law (as they are in as many as 40 states), then they should be low-key, age appropriate, announced in advance, and definitely not designed to be realistic.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, and author of "Violence and security on campus: From preschool through college." Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox.

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