More school districts around the nation are turning to active shooter drills to prepare teachers and law enforcement for the worst-case scenario—and it’s giving some child psychologists pause.
These shooting simulations are now mandatory for schools in Missouri and a handful of other states, which have all passed laws in the shadow of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Active shooter drills go a step further than gun-free lockdown drills, which have become the norm in many schools.
Last month, Troy Buchanan High School in Troy, Mo., conducted a strikingly realistic active shooter drill with 69 volunteer drama students, which included real guns shooting blanks, fake blood on the “victims,” first-response officers, and a simulated hostage situation with a 14-year-old freshman. (See video of the drill below, and read the story here.)
Supporters of such staged shootings say they are the best way for law enforcement and school officials to learn how to respond to such an incident. The vast majority of these drills across the country, like the one at Troy Buchanan, take place after school hours when most students aren't on campus, and only use volunteer student actors who have permission from their parents, if they involve kids at all. Typically, the volunteer students are of high-school age.
But experts agree that when students are present, schools need to tread carefully when leading active shooter drills. Students, parents, and teachers should be thoroughly briefed, they say, and there should be counselors on hand in the aftermath.
“Giving very explicit details beforehand,” like law enforcement did at Troy Buchanan, “is very important,” said Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist and trauma expert at the Child Mind Institute in New York. “Afterwards, you should ask the children, on a scale of 1 to 10, how worried they’re feeling.” Howard said every child should leave the scenario with their distress under at least a 5.
Even so, there’s a chance these exercises can dredge up emotional problems.
“These naturalistic drills could really bring out a lot of issues for students with pre-existing traumas,” said Scott Poland, a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University and an expert in school safety and crisis. He recommended getting to know “every one of the students participating,” and gleaning information on “their families, their mental outlook, and their trauma history,” violent or not.
“These naturalistic drills could really bring out a lot of issues for students with pre-existing traumas.”
Several psychologists told NBC News that they weren’t opposed to the drills—just the use of students in them, even if the students volunteered to be there.
“That does provide some reassurance that they’re up for it,” Howard said. But “children are notoriously underdeveloped in their ability to predict intense emotions and manage them.
Therefore, precautions should be taken to choose more mature students with “the most emotional sophistication,” Howard said, stressing age as a major factor. She said if this drill were an experiment being conducted at a university or medical center, it is very unlikely that it would receive institutional review board approval due to “significant risk to minors.”
Trauma isn’t the only risk attached to realistic active shooter drills. When Howard watched the NBC News video of Troy Buchanan's drill, she noticed a “jocular element,” and worried that “students would make light of this [issue].” She was also concerned that students would be more “habituated” to a violent incident. “We want students’ fight-or-flight technique to be intact,” she said.
Yet school officials and local law enforcement in Troy argue that exposing students and teachers to a modicum of fear will help their response time later. That’s the main reason Jim Ladlie, a parent at Troy Buchanan, thinks the drills are a good idea.
“It helps combat that deer-in-the-headlights reaction when something like that happens for real,” he said. “I think it’s a very positive thing.” Lieutenant Andy Binder, who helped plan the drill in Troy, said he has heard “nothing but positive” feedback from the community.
Howard agrees schools should do drills to “override freeze response,” but “you don’t need to terrify kids in order to do that.” She’s a proponent of lockdown drills, and if a school is required to stage an active simulation, “a fake gunman and a fake gun would be okay.” But stage blood, gunshots, students laying on the floor? “Not necessary,” Howard said.
“When you have fire drills, you don’t put smoke in the hallways. You don’t have people panicking."
The hammier elements of the drill at Troy Buchanan seem to be the sticking point for these experts. Poland was “dismayed” and “frustrated” to see kids playing dead with moulage (mock injury makeup) on their foreheads in the NBC News video. “There’s no reason in the world to expose kids to this,” he said. “Do it with the teachers only.”
Alan Kazdin, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, believes that “the most important part of this kind of preparation is repetition, rather than realism.” He recommended drilling the teachers multiple times “to allay their anxiety” before introducing students to the equation.
“When you have fire drills, you don’t put smoke in the hallways,” he said. “You don’t have people panicking. But you practice it often enough so people know what they’re doing.”
Still, even a pared-down active shooter drill may stoke the illusion that a school shooting is a common event, the experts said. Poland said that out of 55 million school children, about 20 suffer violent deaths on school grounds each year—a 1 in 2.5 million chance.
“When you watch that video, do you understand that low probability?” he asked, referring to the video of Troy Buchanan students. “Or do you feel like a school shooting is just around the corner?”
Education coverage for NBCNews.com is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NBC News retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.