• Experts say this approach to school safety could actually make death tolls worse.
By Keith Johnson —
Ever since the Sandy Hook Elementary School event in Newtown, Connecticut, more school districts across the nation have given local law enforcement agencies carte blanche to use their staff and students as actors and their campuses as staging grounds for extremely realistic “active-shooter” drills.
And while many school administrators and law enforcement officials claim that these simulations are the best way to help first responders prepare for gun-related violence on campus, security specialists and psychologists who spoke with this AMERICAN FREE PRESS reporter insist that these exercises are largely counterproductive and contribute to an already out-of-control climate of fear among parents and schoolchildren.
In a recent segment titled “Fake Blood and Blanks: Schools Stage Active Shooter Drills,” NBC News reported: “Mass shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook” have compelled many schools to devise “new and creative ways” to prepare for similar tragedies.
Though most districts are content practicing standard evacuation and lockdown drills, others feel the need to take it to the next level by staging full-scale exercises, complete with realistic gunfire, stage makeup to create fake wounds and student actors playing the parts of hostages and shooting victims.
“In Missouri, it’s not only a trend, it’s the law,” the report said. “In August 2013, the state legislature took a cue from a handful of post-Sandy Hook lawmakers, like the ones in Illinois and Arkansas, and voted to require every school district to conduct simulated shooter drills.”
The report goes on to say that that these drills “aren’t really for kids—they’re meant to help law enforcement craft strategies to take down active shooters, as well as to familiarize teachers with the sound of guns and teach them to act quickly.”
Many school security experts familiar with these exercises question their value and are concerned about the traumatic effects they may have on staff and students. Among them is Dr. Scott Poland, a nationally-recognized school psychology expert from Florida’s Center for Child Welfare, Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“These drills are giving kids the impression that school is not a safe place to be and that the next shooting is right around the corner,” Poland told this newspaper. “But in reality, your chances of being a homicide victim at a school in America are 1 in 2.5 million, and that’s according to data from the National Association of School Psychologists.”
Poland went on to say that other studies have found that 20% of all children in America have “suffered significant trauma” in their lives as the result of violence, accidents, natural disasters and countless other tragedies and that exposing these same kids to staged shooting scenarios could “cause lots of these issues to re-surface” without the proper mental health procedures in place to help them cope.
“The onus of establishing whether or not these drills are harmful rests on those conducting them,” Poland added. “Unfortunately, I’m quite confident that these people are not doing a thorough assessment of the individual crisis history of students before subjecting them to these simulated shootings and role playing exercises.”
That’s not to say that Poland is against emergency preparations for school shootings.
“I’m actually a very big supporter of drills,” he said. “But we need to focus on training staff and practicing lockdowns and evacuations. We don’t need SWAT teams, gunfire or simulated blood and injury. That level of realism is unnecessary and can prompt a severe emotional impact on vulnerable students.”
Dr. Bruce E. Levine, a nationally-recognized clinical psychologist, recently told this reporter that these violent mock drills could actually increase the likelihood of school shooting mayhem.
“One unintended consequence could be that a potential school shooter participates in one of these drills and learns how to be [a] more effective [killer], utilizing the drill to give him inside information on how to run up his kill score,” Levine said.
“Also, common sense and lots of research show us that exposure to violence dis-inhibits people to more likely act on violent thoughts,” he added. “And while exposure to such violence will create fear and trauma for some kids, for others it can be an adrenaline rush that they may acquire a taste for.”
So, if the experts agree that active shooter drills do more harm than good, what is the best way to keep schools safe from potential gun violence? How about having armed staff at the ready who can confront a perpetrator before he or she has a chance to inflict mass casualties? It certainly worked at the Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver.
On December 13, 2013, 18-year-old Karl Halverson Pierson—wearing a bandolier containing shotgun shells and carrying a pump-action shotgun, a machete and a backpack holding three Molotov cocktails—walked onto his high school and managed to murder one student before his potential killing spree came to an abrupt end.
According to CNN, “The rampage might have resulted in many more casualties had it not been for the quick response of a deputy sheriff who was working as a school resource officer at the school,” said Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson. “We know for a fact that the shooter knew that the deputy was in the immediate area and, while the deputy was containing the shooter, the shooter took his own life.”
Grayson praised the deputy’s response as “a critical element to the shooter’s decision” to kill himself, and lauded his response to hearing gunshots.
“He went to the thunder,” he said. “He heard the noise of a gunshot and, when many would run away from it, he ran toward it to make other people safe.”
It just goes to show that sometimes the simplest solution to a problem is right in the palm of your hand.
Keith Johnson in an investigative journalist and creator of the Revolt of the Plebs.
These drills are appalling! Its normalizing massacres. The real problem here are the gun laws. Take away the right to bear arms takes away the devastating implications. Australia took strong action to change the gun laws. And as a result waved massacres away. A different approach to thinking is required to really make a difference. Catering to it is disappointing.
I believe our drill was planned with the utmost forethought to avoid as many of the concerns raised in the article as possible. All of the students participating – approximately 120 juniors and seniors total, only 40 serving as “victims” – were vetted in advance, by me and one other teacher who work intimately with all of those students. We held multiple meetings to brief the students on what to expect, and to give them opportunities to withdraw themselves. In fact, several students policed (if you’ll pardon the pun) their own ranks, bringing up concerns about fellow students they didn’t feel were mature enough to handle participating in the scenario. School personnel and sheriff’s officers spoke to the students and to their parents (students who didn’t attend one of the critical planning meetings or whose parents didn’t sign off on permission slips were barred from participating). In fact, other than the four school personnel and the two school system safety officers who were involved in planning the scenario, the students were the most knowledgeable individuals within the scenario – they knew more about what to expect than did the school staff and administrators, responding officers and EMS, and so forth.
This drill was never intended to be for school system personnel – at least, not local school personnel, not primarily. While we did involve our teachers – holding the drill on a district professional development day – the primary reason for holding this drill was for the training of our county law enforcement and emergency services, who are tasked with responding to such an incident at any of the 36 schools within our district. It also assisted our district safety staff with a look at exactly how they could be most effective in facilitating response to a crisis, should one happen. Every school in the country should have a Crisis Response Plan – we do, and in preparing for this drill, we brought it out and looked at it. Boy, it sure looks good on paper, but the reality is if you are in a true crisis, you won’t have time to pull out a document and see whose bullet-pointed to handle which aspect.
A similar scenario could play out at a private school or childcare, or even a workplace. The point of these drills is to provide as close to a real-world scenario as possible. I spent the drill documenting it via video, and I couldn’t help but notice the looks on some of the faces of the responding officers – it was clear this was the first time they had been in a situation like this. There were flaws in how the various services responded, and interacted with each other. I would much rather have these breakdowns in a simulated environment rather than the real thing. In a school of 2,700 students, scaling up the problems when services were dealing with just a mere 4% of our student body would be chaotic and disastrous.
While it may seem incongruous to those of us wishing that schools looked like those of a bygone era, the truth is that knowledge of such events is present in students’ minds, because of news and information being so readily available to them. These drills prepare first responders for the types of events, settings and scenarios that we all hope they never encounter – but, God forbid they do, we’re glad they prepare for.