Par­ents say shoot­ing drills trau­ma­tize kids

Con­sen­sus lack­ing on what to do


BUF­FALO, N.Y. — Long be­fore an ex-stu­dent opened fire on his for­mer class­mates in Park­land, Florida, many school dis­tricts con­ducted reg­u­lar shoot­ing drills — ex­er­cises that some­times in­cluded sim­u­lated gun­fire and blood and of­ten hap­pened with no warn­ing that the at­tack wasn’t real.

The drills be­gan tak­ing shape af­ter the Columbine High School shoot­ing in 1999. But 20 years later, par­ents are in­creas­ingly ques­tion­ing el­e­ments of the prac­tice, in­clud­ing whether the drills trau­ma­tize kids.

April Sullivan was pleas­antly sur­prised by an “I love you, Mom” text from her daugh­ter last May, even though she knew the eighth­grader wasn’t sup­posed to be us­ing her cell­phone dur­ing school in Short Pump, Vir­ginia. But she did not know that her child sent it while sup­pos­edly hid­ing from an in­truder. The girl didn’t know the “code blue” alert was a drill.

“To find out later she sent that text be­cause she was in fear for her life did not sit well with me,” Sullivan said.

Hen­rico County Pub­lic Schools have since changed the way they con­duct drills, mak­ing clear at the start that the events are not real and no­ti­fy­ing par­ents as the drill be­gins or right af­ter, dis­trict spokesman Andy Jenks said.

The back­lash un­der­lines the chal­lenges ad­min­is­tra­tors face in de­cid­ing how far to go in the name of pre­pared­ness.

Thirty-nine states re­quire lock­down, ac­tive-shooter or sim­i­lar safety drills. Other states have less ex­plicit re­quire­ments or leave it to dis­tricts, ac­cord­ing to the Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion of the States. A Mis­sis­sippi task force has pro­posed twiceyearly ac­tive-shooter drills.

But even as the drills be­come rou­tine for many of the na­tion’s 51 mil­lion el­e­men­tary and sec­ondary pub­lic school stu­dents, there is no con­sen­sus on how they should be con­ducted, ex­perts said. No data ex­ists, for ex­am­ple, to show whether a drill with sim­u­lated gun­fire is more ef­fec­tive or whether an ex­er­cise that’s been an­nounced in ad­vance is taken less se­ri­ously than a sur­prise.

“Some hard data on each question are needed with ur­gency,” said Uni­ver­sity at Buf­falo pro­fes­sor Jeremy Finn, who gath­ered ex­perts from around the coun­try to eval­u­ate school se­cu­rity mea­sures at a con­fer­ence in Washington, D.C., in Oc­to­ber.

Af­ter Columbine, lock­downs that in­volved bolt­ing the door and crouch­ing qui­etly out of sight be­came the norm. In 2013, the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion rec­om­mended giv­ing staff lat­i­tude to evac­u­ate, bar­ri­cade class­room doors or, as a last re­sort, fight back by throw­ing things or rush­ing the at­tacker.

“Do you re­ally want it to be your kid who’s the one who takes the bul­let and winds up with a plaque in the lobby of the school say­ing he went down as a hero?” asked Bethel Park, Penn­syl­va­nia, par­ent Nanette Adams, who dis­agreed with the de­ci­sion to adopt a widely used safety pro­to­col dur­ing a Septem­ber drill at her 15-year-old son’s high school. The pro­to­col is known as ALICE, which stands for alert, lock­down, in­form, counter and evac­u­ate.

“To me, this just seems like an in­di­rect ad­mis­sion on the part of the schools that they re­ally have no con­trol over who gets into the build­ing, and the school se­cu­rity of­fi­cer isn’t enough to keep the place safe so we need to hold the kids ac­count­able for do­ing it,” she said.

In 2014, the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of School Psy­chol­o­gists and the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of School Re­source Of­fi­cers is­sued joint guid­ance that cau­tioned that while drills have the po­ten­tial to save lives, those “not con­ducted ap­pro­pri­ately” can cause “phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal harm to stu­dents, staff and the over­all learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment.”

Af­ter pub­lic crit­i­cism of the unan­nounced Short Pump drill and oth­ers, the Vir­ginia House of Del­e­gates last month con­sid­ered, but de­feated, leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing schools to give par­ents ad­vance no­ti­fi­ca­tion. The bill’s Demo­cratic spon­sor, Schuyler Vanvalken­burg, a high school teacher, said op­po­nents ar­gued that the heads-up would hin­der safety by let­ting stu­dents take it less se­ri­ously.

“I think that’s baloney. They’re very aware of what can hap­pen in this day and age. They all see the news. They all see so­cial me­dia,” said Sullivan, whose daugh­ter de­clined to be in­ter­viewed by The As­so­ci­ated Press but de­scribed the drill for Rich­mond tele­vi­sion sta­tion WWBT a few days later.

“I thought I was prob­a­bly go­ing to die that day,” she said. “We hear the door han­dle jig­gling up and down and then we see the door open, and it’s our re­source of­fi­cer telling us it’s a drill.”

When her son’s school fired blanks dur­ing a drill, Adams ques­tioned whether it was re­ally nec­es­sary to ex­pose chil­dren to the sound of gun­fire. Oth­ers com­plained that such re­al­is­tic ex­er­cises can take a toll on class­room learn­ing even af­ter the drills are done.

Mo Canady, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the school re­source of­fi­cers’ group, rec­om­mends dis­tricts save the most in­tense ex­er­cises for staff only. As the de­ci­sion­mak­ers, he said, “they need to know a lit­tle more what that’s go­ing to feel like.”


A stu­dent helps block the class­room door with fur­ni­ture dur­ing a mock lock­down drill in Jan­uary 2013 at Moody High School in Cor­pus Christi, Texas.

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