Do School Shooting Drills Traumatize Kids?

About 95 percent of schools undergo some sort of lockdown or intruder drill. Experts explain how this affects your child.
Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Since last fall, Colleen Cunningham's second grader has become increasingly fearful of running errands in public.

"She thinks someone is going to shoot us," says Cunningham, who lives in Olathe, Kansas. "She keeps her car door closed and climbs out through my door instead. And, she cowers behind me while we are in stores."

Because the mom of three carefully screens media content in the car and avoids television news at home, she wonders if school lockdown drills have triggered her 8-year-old's fears. 

"She's always been an anxious kid, but this year she's got a lot more anxiety," Cunningham says. "I asked her about lockdown drills at school, and she told me they do make her, and some of her classmates, feel scared when they are happening."

The students in the K-5 public school are told they are running through a drill beforehand. They are trained to focus on hiding and staying quiet while the teacher locks the doors and windows, and shuts the blinds. "Once everyone is hiding, the principal comes through the school hallways and pulls on the door handles to ensure they are locked," Cunningham says. "My daughter says this is the creepiest part." 

Some of the teachers are also on bathroom duty. If a student is in the bathroom when the drill begins, they are instructed to stand quietly on the toilets (where they can't be seen) with the stall door locked. When the drill is complete, the principal makes an announcement over the intercom.

How are kids affected?

Whether or not drills traumatize kids may depend on the individual child and the nature of the drill.

"We don't have a lot of research to guide us, but anecdotally, there does seem to be a significant subset of kids who experience increased anxiety, increased fear, and other physiological and psychological symptoms from these kinds of activities at school," says Stephen Lassen, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas.

Children with pre-existing anxiety disorders, a history of trauma, or those with developmental disabilities often find shooter drills particularly rattling.

"For a number of other kids, they don't seem to be as affected," Dr. Lassen says. "But there is enough concern that we really need to step back and re-evaluate our policies on this because the practices have really outpaced what we know about the effectiveness."

How much is too much?

Mass school shootings may be statistically rare, but heart-rending stories about innocent victims make it easy to understand why school security has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.

"When this sort of thing happens it violates one of our most deeply held beliefs, which is that when our kids go to school they are going to be safe," says Gerard Lawson, Ph.D., professor of Counselors Education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Also the former president of the American Counseling Association in Alexandria, Virginia, Lawson specializes in trauma and disaster mental health and was involved in the response and recovery efforts following the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Today, about 95 percent of schools undergo some sort of lockdown or intruder drill as part of their emergency response protocol. The number of drills school children practice each year varies from state-to-state. According to the Education Commission of the States, a few states don't specify a requisite number of drills, but most states mandate at least one drill annually.

Others, like Cunningham's home state of Kansas, require as many as nine drills each school year, not including fire, tornado, or other natural disaster. "I think it's too many, and it's traumatizing to a lot of kids," Cunningham says.

But experts say school lockdown drills, which became mainstream after the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, can be beneficial when implemented correctly. Dr. Lawson believes preparation is wise and that safety drills are effective when integrated into the school day in a calm, age-appropriate way. He cautions schools from becoming over-zealous in their efforts, which can traumatize the same population they want to protect.

"Younger children can't separate a drill from reality," says Dr. Lawson. "They should not be exposed to simulated gunfire or the chaos that accompanies a full-scale exercise." And models like the run-hide-fight and ALICE training, which advocate for children to distract or confuse an armed intruder by throwing objects at them, are so new, it's unclear whether or not they're effective and if "that level of preparation is really necessary."

Help reduce uncertainty

It's a good idea to learn what your child's school drill will look like and then help them understand what to expect and the purpose of it.

"Anxiety lives in the unknown. Anytime we are able to make the unknown known, we reduce anxiety," Dr. Lassen says.

Also, request that administration alerts students and families prior to a drill to avoid anxiety-provoking situations where kids think the situation is real. Unanticipated, realistic drills carry "the greatest risk for harm," Dr. Lassen adds.

Drills can be particularly stressful and confusing for preschool and kindergarten-age children and those with special needs. Ask your school how they plan to support this population during exercises.

If you are uncomfortable with the drill content or facilitation, initiate a conversation with the school, offering input and suggestions.

"At the very least, if your child historically doesn't respond well to stressful situations, make sure the school lets you know ahead of time when these drills will happen so you can prepare your child at home...or elect to not have them attend school during that time," Dr. Lassen advises.

Talk to your kids

  • Remind them that crisis drills help everyone practice a just-in-case scenario, much like your family's fire evacuation plan.
  • Emphasize the importance of following their teacher's instructions.
  • Reinforce that you trust the school staff to keep them safe.
  • Avoid projecting any anxiety you may have on your child.

Pay attention to signs of drill-related anxiety

Dr. Lassen advises parents to consult with a mental health professional if a child exhibits any of the following:

  • Changes in normal behavior or functioning
  • Not eating or sleeping well
  • Talks frequently about shootings and/or drills
  • Doesn't want to go to school
  • More irritable, withdrawn, or sad

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