Magazine | November 11, 2019, Issue

The Needless Trauma of Active-Shooter Drills

(Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
Why are we terrorizing children over an exceptionally remote possibility?

‘Cold War kids were hard to kill, under their desks in an air-raid drill,” asserts Billy Joel in his 1989 ballad “Leningrad.” It rhymes but is almost certainly not true: Children subject to a nuclear strike would not be particularly “hard to kill,” whether or not they hid under their desks. 

While wrong about their efficacy, Joel’s depiction of Cold War school-safety practices reflects the received wisdom of the time. In 1952, for instance, the Federal Civil Defense Administration released Duck and Cover — a grainy black-and-white film instructing school-age children on the putative best practices to protect themselves in case of nuclear holocaust. Part animation, part live action — all of it morbid — the film, produced in conjunction with the National Education Association, opens with a two-bit jingle sung over a pizzicato bass. The singers introduce an anthropomorphic animated “turtle by the name of Bert,” who, they insist, “was very alert.” “When danger threatened him, he never got hurt,” because “he knew just what to do”: “Duck — and cover!”

That instruction reflected the then-common belief that “ducking and covering” would mitigate the effects of a nuclear weapon, provided one was sufficiently far from ground zero. In subsequent years, nuclear tests rendered the dangers of airborne fallout more apparent. Contra Bert the Turtle, neither ducking nor covering would do a student much good.

It’s a wonder that Joel’s “Cold War kids” didn’t lose their minds watching the film, which warns of flying shards of glass and a “bright flash, brighter than the sun, brighter than anything you’ve ever seen.” Groups, reacting to the themes depicted in the film, expressed understandable concern about Duck and Cover at the time of its release. The Levittown (N.Y.) Educational Association and the Committee for the Study of War Tensions in Children, for instance, said that the film presented “terrifying concepts” and did an “actual disservice to children.” 

Those who objected to the film were met with predictable opposition. Forrest Corson, a Nassau County, N.Y., civil-defense spokesman, said that the “critics of Duck and Cover, in their misapprehension over the psychological effect of the film on schoolchildren, are unwittingly following the Communist party line laid down in official publications.” 

Which is more or less how you’ll be treated if you question the propriety of mass-shooting drills in American schools in 2019.

The problem is less the drills themselves than the gory and senseless manner in which they are conducted. Is it reasonable to prepare students for a natural disaster, an active gunman, or looming nuclear holocaust? Sure. But those reasonable motives don’t guarantee reasonable results if they are not tempered by a sense of caution. Much of the new for-profit industry of school-shooting preparation, along with ideologically motivated members of the press corps, has lost that sense of caution, distorting public perception of the frequency of mass gun violence at schools and giving insufficient regard to the psychological damage that gruesome and frightening drills can cause to children.

A representative example of the hysteria: CNN claimed in a July article that 22 school shootings had occurred in 2019. That is, on its face, a staggering number. Reading past the headline, however, you realize that the figure includes any incident involving a firearm on school grounds in which a student was injured or killed. School shootings, in the common understanding, are something more specific — mass terror of the kind seen at Sandy Hook and Columbine. Each victim of the 22 shootings CNN referenced represents a tragedy, of course, but the article is clearly meant to evoke a panic — have 22 Parklands happened this year alone? — that the facts do not justify.

A more realistic sense of the scope of the problem comes from James Alan Fox, a criminologist with decades of experience tracking violence in schools, who notes that there have been ten mass shootings at schools since Columbine, with a total of 81 fatalities, 64 of whom were students. A Washington Post article from October reports that this figure amounts to three students killed per year — a figure that is at once too high and, when compared with those for other dangers to a child’s life, very low. More children, to choose one example from the piece, have been killed by lightning in the past 20 years than have been killed in mass shootings in schools. A study done by school-safety expert Stephen C. Satterly Jr. found that approximately 5 percent of education-related fatalities are the result of an active shooter. Thirty-six percent of fatalities, by contrast, are related to transportation to and from school.

For the parents of those 64 victims, the fact that their child’s fate is relatively rare is no comfort, nor do I present it as one. The loss of those children demands our response — but it does not demand a response devoid of caution or prudence. If drills effectively minimize the potential carnage of a mass shooting without needlessly damaging students’ psyches — some experts think they can, while others suggest the harms outweigh any benefits — then they should, with all expediency, become standard practice in schools nationwide. What we should not abide are the ghastly means by which some schools have seen fit to “prepare” students and teachers for a threat that is, by any metric, exceedingly rare. 

Consider an active-shooter drill from earlier this year in which, according to the Indiana State Teachers Association, “four teachers at a time were taken into a room, told to crouch down and were shot execution style with some sort of projectiles — resulting in injuries to the extent that welts appeared, and blood was drawn.” 

Gore likewise characterized a drill in one Missouri school district, which selected a handful of high-school students to act like shooting victims — lying “dead” on the floor, doused in fake blood, and covered with fake bullet wounds — as law enforcement “searched” for the “suspect.”

At least the students in the Missouri school knew that what they were seeing was not real. An unannounced active-shooter drill in Henrico County, Va., led one eighth-grade girl, convinced of her impending demise, to text her mother “I love you” as she prepared to face a mass shooter. The mother, rightfully furious with the school for staging the ordeal, later told reporters that her daughter’s “classmates were crying, praying, and playing dead, believing they were about to be confronted by someone with a gun.” 

In another unannounced drill, fifth-graders at California’s Raisin City Elementary School watched in horror as a masked member of the custodial staff, wielding a fake gun, traipsed about the campus, knocking on doors and windows as kids sat petrified inside. Kim Cooper, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, said, “I had one boy, he was trying to be very quiet about it, but he was sobbing. You can imagine, I was upset, and I’m a 48-year-old adult. But there in the back of my mind, I don’t know that it’s a drill. I think, ‘My goodness, this could really be happening.’” One can only imagine what runs through a fifth-grader’s mind when a masked assailant, visibly brandishing a firearm, bangs on a classroom door.

This is senseless. Why do we visit these spectacles on small children? It isn’t as though reasonable alternatives do not exist: Gathering in a corner and locking the door seems to me a judicious drill, one that avoids these plainly abusive simulations of terror. Teaching adults how to respond to a live shooter — if the training does not involve mock-shooting them “execution style with some sort of projectiles” — is not objectionable in itself. The sheer gore and inordinate realism of many drills, however, betray a tendency borne of panic, one that arises from the breathless calls to do something in the immediate aftermath of mass violence, even if that something abridges a person’s constitutionally protected rights or — as here — unduly terrifies the public over a statistically remote possibility.

NBC’s Chuck Todd, in the wake of the mass killing in Las Vegas, demanded that we talk about how to deal with the problem of gun violence “now,” lest “we wait until cooler heads prevail.” But if making fifth-graders think that gun-wielding custodians are trying to murder them is the fruit of such conversation, we ought to give the cooler heads a try.

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