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The Hidden Damage Of Active Shooter Drills In Schools

No matter how organized or safe the drill, they still feel real to students

By De Elizabeth

Ashley was a freshman in high school when she encountered her first school shooting drill; she just didn’t know it was a drill at the time. “We were huddled in darkness under our desks for about 20 minutes before we got notice it was a ‘surprise drill’ meant to catch teachers off guard,” the 15-year-old told MTV News. “Every drill I’ve had since...has been about the same.”

If you currently attend school, you know that school shooting drills are now expected to be routine parts of your curriculum, like running the mile in gym class or a school dance. According to the most recent data from the National Center of Education Statistics, over 90 percent of public schools ran lockdown drills during the 2015-2016 school year. And gun violence on school grounds is becoming more common (2018, for example, was reported as the worst year for school shootings on record).

But these drills — many of which are unannounced — can negatively impact students in critical ways. “We had a lockdown and I a storage room with my classmates,” Sofia, 14, recalled of a drill in eighth grade. “We didn’t know if it was real or not, because the teachers never tell us…. I was having an anxiety attack and I was hiding under a staircase. I was shaking, but tried to keep it together because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my classmates.”

Ashley could relate, telling MTV News that her first drill unnerved her in a way that did not feel like a drill at all. “While we were waiting, I was listening for gunshots, yelling, or  sirens. I was drafting a text to my mom that I was planning to send if I heard a gunshot.” The entire time, the 15-year-old was preoccupied with how she would protect her class and bring down a potential shooter. “My own safety wasn’t a concern in the moment.”

These reactions aren’t limited to students; Emma, an 18-year-old actor, volunteered last year to participate in an active shooter training session with her local police department. “It was very well-organized and I felt very safe, but as soon as [the simulation] started, it was real,” she described, adding that she was terrified to the point of sobbing. “I genuinely thought I was going to die.”

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The emotions that Ashley, Sofia, and Emma experienced are extremely normal, and common. According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), lockdowns and school shooting drills have the potential to “produce anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms in some students or staff.” NASP also recommends that schools announce drills beforehand, using reassuring language such as “this is an emergency drill, not an actual emergency.”

Victoria Manik, an associate marriage family therapist in Orange County, California, explained to MTV News that emotions such as “fear, nervousness, anger, [or] surprise” could be experienced during a realistic school shooting drill. Manik, who works with adolescents dealing with generalized anxiety disorder, mood disorders, and other mental health issues, elaborated that “even though the...drill serves to create a hypothetical scenario to...prepare students for a realistic event, the fear or distress could create a sympathetic nervous system response (or fight or flight), which may serve to increase physiological symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations, or muscle tension.”

According to Manik, a young person “with an already diagnosed anxiety disorder has a more vulnerable emotional baseline.” And the amount of young people dealing with mental health issues is growing; according to a recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, the percentage of teens experiencing anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other psychological issues has risen significantly within the past decade. And dealing with another stressor at school is clearly taking its toll.

“During and after [school shooting] drills, it was hard to remind myself to breathe,” Dylan, a 20-year-old who has dealt with anxiety for most of his life, told MTV News. His school district in Rhode Island is one of the thousands that has implemented ALiCE Training: a program designed to “minimize the loss of life” during a school shooting by equipping students and faculty with specific strategies for survival. During an ALiCE Drill, students and faculty role-play various active shooter scenarios — including what to do if confronted by a gunman in the classroom.

“We were instructed to close the windows and blinds while the teacher locked the door,” Dylan described. “Then, everyone was supposed to grab something they could theoretically use against a gunman...something small that could be thrown as a distraction, or something bigger...that could hurt the perpetrator if used correctly. Instead of sitting in a corner, we were now supposed to stand and be ready to fight back — or run.”

Dylan recalled experiencing “a lot of anxiety” during ALiCE drills, adding that students were told to run as far away from the school as possible in the event of an actual shooting. “Just standing there in the to my classmates for a good 15-20 minutes in total silence was a lot for my mind to handle. It can be hard to remember that this isn’t real in that setting,” he explained.

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According to Manik, Dylan’s perception makes sense. “Although the drills are intended to create a safety plan and allow [students] to feel more in control in an otherwise powerless situation, an anxious individual can interpret the drill as when a school shooting occurs, rather than if a school shooting occurs,” she said. Likewise, NASP notes that “the perception of safety or risk, even absent a real threat, can have a very real effect on students and staff.” The organization reminds schools that students’ developmental and psychological well-being should always remain a priority in order to “minimize the potential for unintended harm.”

But even the best intentions surrounding these drills can leave lasting scars; Emma was “completely changed” after participating in her drill. “Shootings have always been a prevalent fear, but after that, it is the first thing I think about when I walk in a room,” she said. “I frequently have recurring nightmares of mass shootings.”

Dylan recalled feeling “pretty unsettled for a while” after participating in the drills, but the fear of gun violence was also constantly in the back of his mind. “I was on high alert all the time,” he said. Having grown up with school shooting after school shooting in the headlines, Dylan was gravely aware of what could happen in his classroom at any given time. “Every room I entered, I put together my own personal plan...if something went horribly wrong,” he described. “Where would I stand? What would I grab? Could I make it to an exit...if we had to run?”

School shooting drills aren’t limited to the walls of high schools. Dylan participated in his first drill in third grade; by the time he graduated, he had been preparing to survive a mass shooting for nearly a decade. Today, children as young as preschoolers are learning what to do in the event of an active shooter, and kindergarteners are being taught “lockdown” songs to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

According to EveryTown for Gun Safety, school shooting drills are one piece in a much bigger puzzle. While the current lack of governmental action all but forces  schools to implement a safety response plan, the organization notes that “preventing mass shootings and school gun violence requires a multi-faceted plan that starts with tailored gun violence prevention policies.” Essentially, today’s school shooting drills are treating the symptoms of widespread gun violence, not the disease itself, and there’s little to no evidence supporting their effectiveness. But evidence does suggest that these drills have clear negative psychological and emotional effects on the students who are instructed to participate in them — and that matters.

For Ashley, her emotions lingered long after the drill was finished. “We got released early after we were told it was a drill and not an actual shooter,” she recalled. “I ran to my mom and hugged her…. I had a couple of nightmares and the following days at school were filled with anxiety and jumpiness at any weird sound or siren. I would keep thinking: ‘This is the day. This is the day that an actual shooter comes.’”