ROCHESTER, Minn. — Will school lockdown drills, currently compulsory by statute five times annually in all Minnesota schools, one day look as outdated as the 50s-era duck-and-cover drills involving schoolchildren hoping to survive an atomic attack?
It's an emerging possibility, given new research and the call to abandon the practices as unproven, damaging to children's sense of well-being and even potentially counterproductive as a means to reduce the small likelihood of the horrific events.
The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers on Tuesday, Feb. 11, released a report outlining their opposition to active shooter drills involving students. It noted how "parents, students, educators and medical professionals have raised many concerns about the possible impact that active shooter drills can have on student development, including the risk for depression and anxiety and the risk for lasting symptoms."
The report, issued in partnership with the advocacy organization Everytown For Gun Safety Support Fund, did support active shooter training for school staff without the involvement of children. Should those drills take place, it cited the work of the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers in detailing the conditions drills should abide by if they are to avoid causing children harm.
It stated that such drills "should not include simulations that mimic or appear to be an actual shooting incident," that the dates and tone of drills should be provided to parents and students in advance, and then again to children at the start of a drill.
Drills involving children should be age-appropriate, according to the teachers union, and the report advocated for new research to record any negative symptoms found within participating children afterward, including "bad dreams, fear of coming to school, asthma attacks, and increased antidepressant prescriptions."
The appeal adds to a chorus of opposition to the drills, in which school systems mimic the presence of an active shooter and train children to hide, barricade the doors and sometimes fight back.
"The most dangerous idea in the American education system," it added, "is that arming teachers or school staff is an effective solution to an active shooter incident."
"We've been actually saying this for quite some time based on the data we have," says Jillian Peterson, PhD. co-director of The Violence Project, a federally funded nonpartisan think tank based at Hamline University in St. Paul.
"I think there's been evidence published showing that these drills are traumatizing, that they increase fear, they increase anxiety, they create a misperception of risk, and there's no evidence to show that they minimize casualties."
Last fall Violence Project researchers released their database of 200 mass shooters coded for 100 different variables, including a separate database of school shooters and attempted school shooters.
"One big takeaway from that work is that over 90 percent of them were current or former students of the school, mostly current," says Peterson. "So we spend tons of money on school security, doors and face detectors — and tons of time and energy — on these lockdown drills when we know that the perpetrator would be running through the same drills, potentially showing them the exact response they can expect from the school."
Another problem with the drills, Peterson says, is that school shootings are socially contagious.
"By handing out this script to young students at young ages, then forcing them to rehearse it over and over again, I think there are real questions about whether we are inadvertently handing out the script for them to do that. We're forgetting that people from learn from each other, and that when one happens, additional ones happen."
Peterson, who will be presenting data on Tuesday to the House Education Committee at the Minnesota Legislature in St. Paul, says the implications of this work is only beginning to sink in with lawmakers.
"I think it's relatively new territory," she says. "For a long time we didn't have the data. ... We didn't know that these are young people in crisis. I think there was some kind of myth out there these were scary monsters that sneak into the school and do this, rather than these are kids at our own school."
Peterson finds the latter a somewhat hopeful detail for prevention strategies, the knowledge that "these are our kids in crisis."
"We can have anonymous reporting systems. We can do threat assessment and intervention. We can try to stop this before it's happening. Now that there's this growing amount of evidence that this doesn't make sense (to run lockdown drills), I do think people are starting to have these conversations, like whether it makes sense to mandate five of these a year in Minnesota."
As for the notion of arming teachers, a practice currently allowed in some Minnesota school districts, "the data tell us that nearly every perpetrator of a school shooting is actively suicidal and plans to die in the act," she says. "So if someone's suicidal, it means a lot of our traditional strategies like punishments and threats aren't going to be effective. If someone's suicidal a gun isn't a deterrent."
Her data also counters the idea that an armed teacher could stop a threat.
"For half of the school shootings in our database," she says, "there was an armed officer on the scene, and that didn't deter it from happening. So based on that data, we would say that additional weapons on the scene wouldn't be preventative.