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Should K-12 schools train students for active shooter situation?
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The Limitations of Training Students for Active Shooter Situations
Schools are a fundamental part of any society due to their role in promoting academic progress. However, other than academic progress, educators have to ensure that students receive the appropriate support in a safe environment. Safety, in this case, involves more than worrying about natural disasters such as fires or tornados and dealing with the threat of an active shooter. Most public and private schools have embraced active shooter drills to prepare their students for emergencies. However, the drills have raised numerous controversies, with some parties arguing that training students for such situations go against the fundamental role of k-12 schools and hurts students. On the other hand, some theorists maintain that k-12 schools should have appropriate emergency operations plans (EOPs) to prepare students for any active shooter situation. Undoubtedly, a positive learning environment should focus on upholding students' welfare. Although training students for active shooter situations through regular drills promote safety in k-12 schools, educators and policymakers should ban them since they hurt students’ emotional health, evidence of their effectiveness remains inconclusive, and they contribute to poor academic performance among learners.
Active shooter situations have been a common problem in most k-12 schools. In an article by Abbinante, the first school massacre occurred in 1764 in a Pennsylvania colony when American-Indians engaged in an active shooting killing ten students and one teacher (2). In 1927, the entire nation was shocked when Bath school in Bath Township, Michigan, saw the killing of thirty-eight elementary students and six teachers using bombs and guns (Abbinante 2). Such incidents became prevalent across the country as criminals continued targeting learning institutions leading to the death and injury of many students and educators. Such situations have pushed legislators towards thinking about the best way to provide safe education for maximum academic achievement. Although educators believe that students require a safe learning environment, legislators disagree on the best safety approach. One of the most common approaches has been using active shooter drills. Here, students and educators remain on lockdown within a designated area and embrace outlined emergency procedures (Jarvis|). Such drills are usually unannounced and simulate an actual active shooter event. The drills put enormous pressure on students, and they have to halt any learning activities to ensure they survive the active shooter situation.
Rethinking Active Shooter Drills
Active shooter drills hurt students' emotional health. A common characteristic of all active shooter incidents is that they heighten fear levels among students and educators. The shootings leave victims disoriented and take a massive toll on their mental health. In an article by Moore-Petinak et al.,
“…while the exact nature of active shooter drills varies, some are so realistic they involve a simulated shooter who stalks the hall, checking classroom doors, listening for any noise that may indicate the presence of students" (509).
Undoubtedly, for every active shooter drill undertaken within a learning institution, it leaves students feeling unsafe, scared, helpless, and sad. The major intention of the drills is to prepare students for an actual shooting event, which has contributed to a massive implementation in most K-12 schools. However, such schools ignore the detrimental effect of the exercise due to its long-lasting impact on students such as heightened anxiety and fear. In the study by Moore-Petinak et al. a majority of the students claimed that drills make them feel scared and helpless (511). The results are indicative of the emotional impact that drills have on students every time they are conducted. In other words, while the training exercise prepares students for any active shooter events, the approaches used are counteractive and leave students mentally drained and exhausted than they were before the exercise. The fact that such drills are unannounced further exacerbates the problem as planners try to remain as realistic as possible to replicate a real-life situation.
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There is a careful balance between preparing and traumatizing students and educators. Over the years, K-12 schools have embraced different approaches to conduct active shooter drills. While some institutions notify parents before the drill, some hire actors to act as gunmen and fail to notify teachers and parents about the drill until completion. An incredible example of a highly simulated active shooter drill occurred in Indiana. Here, the hired gunmen ordered elementary teachers to kneel and face a classroom wall before execution with plastic pellets (Will and Blad). The educators screamed during the exercise, and some developed welts and bruises. The incident is a clear depiction of how far decision-makers and school management can go in preparing schools for an active shooter event. While such an event could be a reflection of an actual incident, replicating the same among students could leave them terrified and unable to focus in the classroom or sleep at night as they relive the horrifying ordeal. In addition, the active shooter drills could re-traumatize students who had a prior encounter with violence.
There is extremely low evidence on the effectiveness of active shooter drills in preventing deaths or ensuring students survive in case of an emergency. According to Hamblin "studies of whether active shooter drills actually prevent harm are all impossible. Case studies are difficult to parse." In other words, researchers can't determine how effective active shooter drills are when children face a real-life situation. In addition, available evidence shows that such preventive measures remain highly ineffective since most school shooters are insiders and have a profound understanding of the security procedures within their schools (Wilkie). Therefore, no matter the number of drills conducted, they remain highly ineffective since perpetrators remain well-rehearsed in the security procedures that a school might embrace during actual shooting. While researchers have tried to determine the positive impact of active shooter drills, when the perpetrator is an insider, such studies become redundant. As a result, many theorists and scientists avoid conducting such studies due to their inconclusive nature. Although decision-makers should rely on evidence-based practices to avoid unnecessary deaths from active school shooting situations, they embrace active shooter drills as a means of preparing students for real-life events, despite the lack of enough evidence proving their effectiveness.
Active shooter drills contribute to poor academic performance among students. Undoubtedly, there exists a close relationship between emotional health and academic achievement. In a study by Grotan et al., other than being a major public health concern, mental distress leads to poor academic results. The researchers concluded that students that experienced extreme mental distress reported low academic self-efficacy and delayed study progress. The primary contributor to mental distress was stressful situations at home and in school. Based on the study’s findings and the argument that school shooter drills contribute to adverse mental outcomes, students who go through the drills are likely to perform poorly in their academics. The anticipation of future threats (anxiety) among students going through active shooter drills might hurt their performance due to decreased concentration rate (Bisson 21). In other words, the heightened anxiety levels affect academic progress and contribute to under-achievement. Also, poor emotional health affects a child's diet, sleep cycles, self-esteem, and social interactions. The adverse effect on children's working memory makes it difficult for them to retain new information and to recall previously learned concepts. Since active shooter drills teach students that one of them could betray them to the point of conducting an active shooting, it damages their ability to interact effectively and freely. The damaged interactions lead to strained relationships and ineffective school groups despite the importance of group discussions in improving academic performance.
Many theorists and policymakers claim that active shooter drills might be harmful to students, but they are necessary. In other words, while the drills lead to heightened stress and anxiety, in a growing climate of gun violence, preparing students for the worst outcome is necessary. In a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, in the years 2015 and 2016, more than 95% of public schools embraced the use of lockdown drills. A majority of critics argue that the drills are necessary since they help students understand the necessary actions to take in case of any real-life occurrence. That is, the drills build students’ confidence in knowing what do to during an emergency. Also, the more realistic the drills are the better, as they will prepare educators and students while reducing their anxiety and safety risks during an emergency (Brown). Such arguments have contributed to the massive adoption of active shooter drills in most public and private K-12 schools. Most supporters of active shooter drills argue that they will harden the students and make them realize that one of them could be a potential shooter, which makes them remain alert and proactive.
Preparation is without a doubt an important part of avoiding adverse outcomes during an active shooter situation. However, educators and policymakers should ban active shooter drills for several reasons. To start with, no amount of preparation can protect students when one of them betrays them. As evidence suggests, insiders perpetrate most active school shootings. Therefore, while preparing the students for a possible active shooting seems to be the most important decision, it is counterintuitive since it contributes to negative effects on students' emotional health, leads to low academic scores, and there is a lack of enough evidence supporting their effectiveness in protecting lives. In addition, simulating real-life situations and failing to inform parents, students, and educators increases their anxiety, which further exacerbates the situation.
The drills reduce children's feeling of safety at school and might consider school as an unsafe environment for learning. Supporting the reliance on active shooter drills in K-12 schools is ignoring the essence of feeling safe and secure to the mental and physical wellbeing of learners. While the main intention is to help students develop effective coping mechanisms, the damage of such drills on their development and school performance should make policymakers and other decision-makers evaluate their importance. Also, the drills ignore one critical element such as recognizing signs of students or educators who might be thinking about violence. Therefore, rather than subjecting students to traumatizing drills, they should train teachers to identify students in distress to avoid a possible shooter situation. Also, K-12 schools should direct their efforts away from the drills and focus more on programs such as developing emergency action plans, security hardware, and hiring more security personnel to help students during an emergency.
Active shooter drills have enormous adverse effects on children. Therefore, educators and policymakers must ban them due to their effect on children’s emotional health, academic performance, and inconclusive evidence on their effectiveness. On emotional health, the drill heightens children’s anxiety and fear leaving them mentally drained and exhausted than they were before the exercise. Also, while educators and decision-makers rely on the drills to save lives in case of a real-life situation, there is inconclusive scholarly evidence on the same. No matter the number of drills conducted, they remain highly ineffective since perpetrators, who are mainly insiders remain well-rehearsed in the security procedures that a school might embrace during actual shooting. Lastly, too much anxiety and fear lead to poor academic performance among students. The heightened anxiety levels from the drills affect academic progress and contribute to under-achievement. Therefore, banning active shooter drills will avoid anxiety and increase students’ performance across numerous K-12 schools.
Abbinante, Vicki M. "Policy decisions and options-based responses to active shooters in public schools." (2017).
Bisson, Katherine H. “The Effect of Anxiety and Depression on College Students’ Academic Performance: Exploring Social Support as a Moderator.” Abilene Christian University, 2017, digitalcommons.acu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1057&context=etd.
Brown, Emily Ann. “Realistic Active Shooter Drills Strengthen School Safety.” District Administration, 15 Feb. 2019, districtadministration.com/active-shooter-drills-strengthen-school-safety/.
Grøtan, Kirsti, et al. "Mental Health, Academic Self-Efficacy, and Study Progress Among College Students - The SHoT Study, Norway.” Frontiers in Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2019, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30733694/.
Hamblin, James. “What Are the Psychological Effects of 'Active-Shooter Drills'?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Mar. 2019, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/02/effects-of-active-shooter/554150/.
Jarvis, Will. “The New Norm for Back to School: Active-Shooter-Response Training.” CHE, CHE, 23 July 2020, www.chronicle.com/article/the-new-norm-for-back-to-school-active-shooter-response-training/.
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