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Intense, frequent active school shooter drills could be traumatizing kids, experts fear

Preparation, or scare tactics?

William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images

Well-intentioned efforts to make schools safer through preparedness drills for active shooter situations may be having negative psychological effects on children, some psychologists and educators told the New York Times.

Since 2012, when a gunman killed 20 children and six school staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, demand for active shooter drills in public schools increased dramatically.

The Department of Education began recommending "run, hide, fight" responses instead of the previous shelter-in-place recommendations, and the new method required more training for educators and students.

However, some experts are concerned that the drills are doing more harm than good, particularly extremely realistic or surprise drills that might do more to make students feel unsafe than they do to protect them.

The problem is exacerbated when the drills are developed by people who may be experts in safety and security, but who lack understanding of or experience with children.

"A whole new cottage industry has emerged where people who don't know anything about kids are jumping in and adapting protocols for groups like police officers or people preparing for combat," Bruce D. Perry, founder of the ChildTrauma Academy, told the Times. "The number of developmentally uninformed, child-uninformed and completely stupid ideas is mind-numbing."

The Times report cites examples of potentially traumatizing training exercises, such as one from Indiana during which children as young as 11 had to listen to a 911 recording from the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.

In Virginia, Short Pump Middle School students were subjected to an unannounced active shooter drill with fire alarms and "unseen people jiggling the handles of doors." Some students thought there was an actual attack, and texted what they thought were their final goodbyes to family members.

Despite the fact that an extremely small percentage of gun-related homicides take place at schools, a Pew Research Center poll from 2018 found that 60 percent of teenagers, and an equal percentage of parents, are very or somewhat worried about a mass shooting at school.

Greg Crane is the founder of the ALICE Training Institute. ALICE stands for "alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate." He believes active shooter drills are necessary, but that terrifying students is not.

"The training is not designed to scare anyone," Crane told NYT. "I don't have to make it real to get you to understand how strategies work."

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