Sandy Hook no reason to scare kids to death

James Alan Fox

August 24, 2014

With summer drawing to a close, children across America are engaged in age-old back-to-school rituals. For many, the start of school also involves something newer -- active shooter drills, possibly even with fake blood and blanks fired in the hallway for added realism.

Countless schools have adopted these simulations, voluntarily or by legislative mandate. The hope is that students and faculty will be sufficiently prepared should some dispirited student or deranged intruder decide to turn the school into a battle zone.

Although well-intentioned, active shooter drills, first introduced after the 1999 Columbine massacre and now more prevalent after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting spree, can do more harm than good. It is questionable whether children are indeed better prepared by participating in such charades. But the downside is in needlessly scaring impressionable youngsters and reinforcing the notion that they are in constant danger.

Emergency drills are nothing new to the school day, of course. Drills to prepare students in the event of fire or other natural catastrophes are commonplace. Yet the aggressive nature of shooting drills staged in many schools makes them qualitatively different and exceptionally more traumatizing to children. The psychological harm that may come from these simulations is not warranted in light of the low probability that such an event will actually occur.

Notwithstanding the horror associated with these episodes, on a statistical basis, school shootings should be one of parents' least concerns when it comes to the safety of their children. The death toll -- on average two dozen annually-- pales in comparison to the hundreds of youngsters killed in drowning and bicycle accidents. Enhanced training in water and bicycle safety will go further to protect children than running them through school hallways while being stalked by a pretend bad man wielding a pretend gun or having them in lockdown while the SWAT team clears the building.

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, many, if not most, students would not recall what they had learned during occasional lockdown drills, especially amidst the panic associated with the real thing.

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 has to step foot inside a lifeboat or suffer the experience of being lowered into the water. In case of a catastrophe in the air or at sea, the passengers will be directed where to go and advised what to do.

This same reasonable posture should apply for 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, over-preparing students needlessly risks intensifying their fears and anxiety. And if active shooter drills are required by state law, then make them as low-key and unrealistic as possible.

Still, there are security professionals who insist that one can never be too well-prepared, even for a rare event like a school shooting. However, there is a critical difference between preparing passengers for the unlikely crash or sinking and readying students for an improbable shooting.

Airlines and cruise lines don't inspire dangerous ideas by reciting emergency drills. By contrast, there are a few students for whom the notion of wreaking havoc on their schoolmates may seem like an exhilarating idea. Obsessing over the unlikely possibility of a school shooting can unfortunately serve to inspire potential copycats and inadvertently increase the chance of tragedy.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University,
is co-author of
Violence and Security on Campus and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.