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Does the normalization of school lockdown drills harm American students?

Administrative coordinator Peggy Giboney, right, guides students into the Bardwell Science Building during a lockdown drill at Biola University, in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's La Mirada Station.
Leo Jarzomb
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Administrative coordinator Peggy Giboney, right, guides students into the Bardwell Science Building during a lockdown drill at Biola University, in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's La Mirada Station.

The toll from gun violence in American schools has grown to record levels, with federal officials reporting the highest number of school shootings to date in the 2020–21 school year. Schools across the nation have implemented lockdown drills in response, hoping to teach students and staff methods to stay safe during a threat.

But research indicates those drills may, instead, be inflicting trauma.

During the 2020-21 school year, 93 school shootings with casualties were reported at public and private elementary and secondary schools. It's a record-setting total that included 43 school shootings with deaths, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Kate Dias, a high school math teacher and president of Connecticut Education Association, says students are becoming numb to all the violence.

“That is absolutely the probably the saddest outcome of this – that we as a society have normalized threatening children to the point where the children just assume, ‘OK, we'll practice and follow what we're supposed to do.’ It is normal for them.” Dias said on Connecticut Public’s “Where We Live.” “When you talk to high school kids, that's not something that they necessarily are comfortable with. They're not OK with it, but they're just aware that they're a little bit on the helpless side of things.”

There is limited data on the long-term mental health consequences for children exposed to active shooter drills in school. But drills could increase overall anxiety, as they occur during important years for youth brain development.

The intensity of the lockdown drill can also greatly impact students’ mental well-being, according to David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“Some of these drills try and simulate an actual shooting experience. We don't know how often this happens, but [there are] at least a few cases where the children have actually been deceived, or they haven't been told it's a drill,” Schonfeld said. “We think that type of deception, whether that involves children or the staff, is inappropriate and shouldn't be occurring.”

A study conducted by Safe Havens International found that school staff who completed active shooter training with the common “run, hide, fight” guidelines were almost twice as likely to make critical mistakes during simulation drills than staff who were untrained.

Even lockdown drills that do not simulate active shooter experiences can still promote dangerous action during an emergency.

Teachers and students may be taught to fight a shooter when it would be safest to run or hide in some lockdown preparedness materials, according to a policy statement by Schonfeld and other experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

A study by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2021 found that anxiety, depression and stress increase by around 40% after lockdown drills. This is amid growing concern that students who plan to carry out a shooting on campus will gain insight on emergency procedures, according to a peer-reviewed article by criminal justice and psychology professors from SUNY, The State University of New York.

One of the best ways to help both students and faculty deal with lockdown anxiety is to start a conversation about it.

“As an educator, one of my roles with the kiddos is to always listen. I want them to have that reassurance,” Dias said. “My job is to help them feel like they don't need all the answers, because I'm going to help them.”

School staff and students should have access to mental health professionals at all times during lockdown drills, according to guidance from the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers and Safe and Sound Schools.

Setting aside time for students to speak with not only school therapists, but teachers and peers after a drill or an actual emergency is critical.

“When an incident occurs, kids will come in and share with you. ‘This is really stressful. This is really traumatic. I can't believe this happened again,’” Dias said. “We have to have the conversation with high school kids; you actually have to let them talk about how they feel. Validate. ‘Of course this scares you – why wouldn’t it?’”

Children and parents in Connecticut can call 211 for access to youth mental health emergency care.

Connecticut Public's Catherine Shen and Tess Terrible contributed to this report.

Kelsey Goldbach is a Digital Media Intern with Connecticut Public.

She is a fourth year student pursuing an undergraduate degree in Journalism at the University of Southern California. Recently, Kelsey was a part of the Dow Jones News Fund Digital Intern Class of 2023. She is a Connecticut native and spends her summers in Waterbury.