The News-Times

Kids have grown up with active shooter drills

- By Robert Marchant

Nine years ago, the nation was shocked by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Most students now attending schools across the state are too young to remember or have only dim memories of the deaths of the 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown. But the legacy of the horrific attack remains in many ways — in public policy initiative­s, law enforcemen­t procedures and safety protocols that were drasticall­y increased after Dec. 14, 2012.

Students graduating from high school in spring have spent their entire educationa­l lives carrying out “active shooter drills” — sheltering under desks, huddling in corners or cramming into closets. The statemanda­ted training drills are intended to develop preparedne­ss in the case of an attack by a gunman like the one in New

town or the teen who killed four classmates in a Michigan high school last week.

Students across the state have also endured another series of threats — such as fake bomb scares or threatenin­g messages experience­d recently in Norwalk and Greenwich — that disrupt the school day and trigger a police response.

The extensive security as well as the multiple drills practiced by students are raising concerns among public officials, educators and mental health profession­als who work with young people. Teachers’ unions, anti-gun violence activists and researcher­s have called for modifying active shooter drills or ending them altogether. But the training still has many supporters in local schools and among criminal justice researcher­s, who say they are effective and necessary.

Some parents are casting a critical eye on the drills. Michele Voigt, a Greenwich mother of two middle-school-age girls, says she would end their exposure to lockdown drills if she could.

“They were toddlers when Sandy Hook occurred. They haven’t known anything different,” said Voigt, an artist. “These kids have grown up with apprehensi­on and fear.”

Voigt, who advocates for victims of violent crime and has a background in public policy, said she was haunted by her daughters’ experience­s.

“They huddle, they have to be extremely quiet, they bolt the doors. When my kids came home, they told me they didn’t know if it was a drill or the real thing, frequently,” she said. “I remember when my daughters were in second grade, they told me they could hear the kindergart­ners crying in their classroom.”

The generation coming of age in the shadow of Sandy Hook has been psychologi­cally impacted by the security measures, Voigt said she. For her own kids, she said, “I would like to opt out, I would like to know as a parent, in advance, when they are going to happen and be able to keep my children home that day.”

Greenwich students, like students across the region, have also gone into lockdown mode on other occasions when a threat or apparent threat arises — including messages scrawled on bathroom walls, social media postings or unusual items in backpacks. The impact was the same, the Greenwich mother said: “There’s that same terror, having to lock down. They came home completely shaken, thinking it was a shooting.”

Part of school life

Yanli Muhs, a senior at Guilford High School, said she can hardly remember her first lockdown drill, it was so long ago. But they have been a constant in her school life, and she took part in one this week.

“It’s become almost like a normal thing. We’re all used to the ‘strobe’ (emergency) lights coming on over desks, they start flashing. We either line up at the side of the room, where the door isn’t facing. Or we go into a closet, or a room with no windows,” said Muhs 17, an activist with Students Demand Action for Gun Sense, an anti-gun violence group.

“Sometime they warn us, sometimes they don’t. It’s scary not being warned. Even though in our heads we’re pretty sure it’s probably not a real shooter, there’s still a fear in the back of our minds that it might be,” she said. “Even when it is just a drill, it’s eerie. It’s acknowledg­ing the fact that the fear is there, and the threat of a school shooting is present.”

Muhs said she had become “numb” to the drills. But she said she recalls that “when I was younger, in elementary school and middle school, there would be kids crying, they were scared.”

She understand­s the rationale — “I know the idea behind them is to prepare us,” Muhs said — though it is hard to assess how her classmates would react in a true emergency.

Rene Jameson, a college student who graduated from Greenwich High School three years ago, said her classmates were apathetic about the drills, often joking about them.

“I think a lot of students stopped taking the drills seriously, because they happened, what felt like, very frequently. It is sad that I and other students were so used to them, and that we needed to think about school shootings at all,” said Jameson, a junior at Tufts University.

Jameson said the drills are a symptom of a larger problem. “Many students do not feel safe in school anymore due to the frequency of school shootings and the lack of comprehens­ive preventati­ve and follow-up action to these terrible events. Students are implicitly and explicitly being told in this country that people’s right to have a gun is more important than their safety, and the right to learn in a safe and nourishing environmen­t,” she said in an email.

Active-shooter drills are mandated in 40 states, and the National Center for Education Statistics found that 95 percent of U.S. public schools conduct school safety drills annually. The state of Connecticu­t requires that school districts carry out regular “crisis response drills.”

This year, with the number of rampage shootings climbing again after schools reopened following the COVID-19 pandemic, questions over lockdown drills have arisen. Some of the most intense drills — involving simulated gunfire, fake blood and realisticl­ooking security personnel acting like rampage shooters — have captured national attention and raised questions.

A Boston-area psychiatri­st, Dr. Nancy Rappaport, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote a public statement last year, “As a child and adolescent psychiatri­st, with decades of experience working in schools, I am convinced that they are doing more harm than good.”

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Associatio­n this year called for strict modificati­ons of active shooter drills and an end to “unannounce­d drills.”

A congressio­nal committee authorized a $1 million study earlier this year to examine “lasting psychologi­cal trauma” associated with the drills. The Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, working with a research team at Georgia Tech, said the drills caused stress and anxiety in young people, while offering few benefits in public safety.

Local drills

But the drills have supporters, who say they are a valuable tool. Local school administra­tors also say they have value, but districts give out little informatio­n on how active-shooter drills are conducted, citing security concerns. The districts say the local police department and other emergencyr­esponders are coordinate­d with the training.

“The safety and security of students and staff is always priority No. 1 for all public schools. Our schools regularly practice a variety of safety drills, including ‘Shelter in Place.’ These drills are valuable because they provide us the opportunit­y to train our staff and students, so that they are confident in their ability to react in the most safe manner if there is a need to respond to an actual crisis,” said Justin Martin, a spokesman for the Stamford School District.

In Middletown, school district spokeswoma­n Jessica B. Lavorgna said all state-mandated procedures are documented and followed. “Beyond this, we respectful­ly decline to share further details of our lockdown drills and procedures in order to safeguard our students, faculty and staff,” she said.

In West Haven, Superinten­dent of Schools Neil Cavallaro said, “The goal of any drill is to make sure that staff and students are prepared in case of any emergency, and to reassure them that we are doing everything within our control to keep them safe.”

Fairfield Schools Superinten­dent Mike Cummings said, “The goal is to train staff and students what to do in the event of an emergency. We value the preparatio­n these drills provide to everyone. For security purposes, we do not get into the details of the drills. Essentiall­y, they are training exercises.”

In Greenwich, schools spokesman Jonathan Supranowit­z said the district notifies students and staff that a drill is for training purposes only. “The P.A. systems will alert staff and students who may be outside if an event occurs. Staff and students outside will find a safe area away from the school and await instructio­ns from emergency service providers. The public around each school will hear the activation. The activation on the outside speakers will last 10 minutes. Again, the term “THIS IS A DRILL” is placed in the announceme­nt,” he wrote in a statement.

In Danbury, where high school students were dismissed early last week due to noncredibl­e threats, 10 drills are held per year at each school. This means seven fire drills and three emergency drills, which include lockdowns, shelter in place and evacuation drills.

“The goal of preparedne­ss and response drills is to develop a

high level of preparedne­ss in the event of an emergency,” Superinten­dent Kevin Walston said in an email. “Adjustment­s are sometimes needed to achieve a high level of preparedne­ss.”

Value of drills

Jaclyn Schildkrau­t, associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego who has researched school shootings, says the drills have a positive impact.

“It’s not only that I think it’s valuable, the evidence shows its valuable. What’s escaping this conversati­on is the fact that lockdown drills do save lives,” Schildkrau­t said.

Referencin­g the recent school shooting in Oxford, Mich., Schildkrau­t said, “The (four) people who were killed died in the hallway. These were individual­s who didn’t have time to react or get out of the way or get out of the building. Everyone who was locked down (inside a classroom) went home, physically unharmed.”

Schildkrau­t said it is important to get students to participat­e. “Locking the door or barricadin­g the door, the principle is still the same — you are creating a barrier of space and time between you and the threat. There’s a specific set of protocols to build that instinct in,” she said. “The reason you train is to build muscle memory, so you can go on auto pilot…. Getting the door locked, getting the lights off, getting out of sight — then you’re more likely to increase your survivabil­ity.”

But some drills, such as one in Indiana where teachers were shot with pellet guns, are counterpro­ductive, she said. There are best practices that school administra­tors can research, produced by the National Associatio­n of School Psychologi­sts, that provide guidance, she said.

Another researcher who has interviewe­d hundreds of students, parents, teachers and psychologi­sts for a new book on school-related violence, said there is a wide discrepanc­y in how active-shooter drills are handled.

Parents are often in the dark, according to Nancy Kislin, a family therapist and licensed clinical social worker from New Jersey. After extensive study, she said she hoped to shed light on the shooter drills that students go through for their entire school lives — but often with little or no involvemen­t or awareness from

parents or school boards.

“I found huge inconsiste­ncies between school districts. Kids could have a completely difference experience­s, living 10 minutes apart,” Kislin said.

“I interviewe­d many staff, teachers who were confused by the inconsiste­ncies. One teacher had a box of rocks to throw at the shooter,” she recalled. Another teacher would pick out the two biggest boys in his math class every year, designatin­g them as the ones who would rush the hypothetic­al shooter with him, she said.

Kislin, author of “Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence,” said greater parental involvemen­t is needed.

“Email parents by the conclusion of the school to let know that there was a drill. Why is that so important? What helps lower the trauma from a traumatic event is that you have someone to talk to about it,” she said.

It’s important to lower the emotional intensity, including the terminolog­y, and to give students a two-minute break to destress from the drills. “And get away from the scary stuff,” Kislin said.

“Is every child affected by school security drills? No,” she said. But in researchin­g the book, she said she had spoken with numerous parents whose children who had lost sleep or were frightened to use a school bathroom. In one case, she spoke with the parents of a 15-year-old girl who refused to leave her bed room for weeks after a drill. The girl was caught in a school hallway during a “red alert” simulation, Kislin said, and ran from locked door to locked door, ending up deeply traumatize­d.

“I would never say not to have drills and training,” she said. But standards incorporat­ing mentalheal­th guidance are needed, Kislin said. Kids should come home from school without carrying emotional and psychologi­cal burdens along with their backpacks, she said, and safety also means not living in a state of anxiety.

“I know we can do this,” Kislin said. “We want schools to be safe, to have that common foundation.”

 ?? / Norwalk Police Department ?? Norwalk police responded to Norwalk High School in Norwalk, following a threat that later turned out to be a hoax.
/ Norwalk Police Department Norwalk police responded to Norwalk High School in Norwalk, following a threat that later turned out to be a hoax.
 ?? Rob Marchant / Hearst Conn. Media ?? Yanli Muhs, a senior at Guilford High School, said lockdown drills have been a constant in her school life, and she took part in one this week.
Rob Marchant / Hearst Conn. Media Yanli Muhs, a senior at Guilford High School, said lockdown drills have been a constant in her school life, and she took part in one this week.
 ?? Contribute­d photo ?? Jaclyn Schildkrau­t is an author who has researched school shootings and is an associate professor at SUNY Oswego.
Contribute­d photo Jaclyn Schildkrau­t is an author who has researched school shootings and is an associate professor at SUNY Oswego.
 ?? Contribute­d photo ?? Author and family therapist Nancy Kislin.
Contribute­d photo Author and family therapist Nancy Kislin.

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