Rehearsing Trauma: How Mass Shootings Have Changed America’s Classrooms
“Do you know what you just did? You just killed every single person in this classroom.” As students tried their best to shrink into invisibility—crouching on walls, whispering under desks, and crawling under seats—the boy in question laughed nervously. “Hey! Do you think it’s funny that you just ended everyone’s life?”
Julia Wu ’23 recalled a school administrator of Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, Florida bellowing the accusation at a student whose elbow was visible through the classroom door window. Three hours by car away from Parkland and a year after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, an exposed elbow during an active-shooter drill was enough to warrant the administrator’s fierce reproach.
Following the announcement that the drill had ended, students emerged shaken but unsurprised. This was the new normal. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reported that 95 percent of American public schools now conduct lockdown drills. Most simulations involve sheltering in place, but others include more elaborate, and often more harrowing, experiences such as smoke bombs, a principal or police officer banging on doors, or audio recordings of gunshots.
And it is not only high school students who are subjected to such routines. According to The Washington Post, approximately 220,000 out of the more than 4.1 million students who experienced at least one lockdown or lockdown drill this past school year were in kindergarten or preschool. Gun violence and fear have been ingrained in the school culture of our nation—and the measures intended to cultivate safety may be hurting the very kids they are designed to protect.
Experts question the appropriateness and effectiveness of active shooter drills. Only a small percentage of gun violence involving children occurs at schools, and the odds of a public school student being killed by a gun in school is 1 in 614,000,000, according to the same Washington Post editorial.
On April 20th, 1999, Ted Zocco-Hochhalter was on a business trip in Seattle when he received a call from Colorado. There had been a shooting at the school that two of his children attended in Columbine. He immediately boarded the first plane back home. Upon his disembarkment, he was escorted to the hospital by four police officers and his brother-in-law. Nathan, Zocco-Hochhalter’s 17-year-old son, had survived. Nathan’s sister, 15-year old Anne Marie, had been critically injured, relying on life-support when Zocco-Hochhalter entered the hospital. After months of physical therapy and surgery to drain fluid from her heart and remove the bullet from her lower back, Anne Marie eventually survived, though she was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
The father is now a retired emergency management specialist, and has avoided public scrutiny for ten years, averse to retelling his story and reliving the tragedy. Nonetheless, over the past decade, he has become an advocate for school safety and gun violence prevention. In an interview with The Politic, Zocco-Hochhalter explained that “active-shooter-type-massacres… are almost infinitesimally rare.” He continued, “With my own family at Columbine, I could go off in the opposite direction and be very extreme in my approach to this, but the reality is active shooter incidents are still very, very rare.”
The sudden increase of gun violence drills in schools is partly a symptom of media sensationalism, but it is also symptomatic of the well-founded terror that pervades our country. Gun violence is a very real and fatal public health crisis. Since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, there have been more than 2,000 mass shootings, as published by the Gun Violence Archive. Nonetheless, mass shootings constitute less than two percent of firearm deaths in the United States. As stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 100 Americans are killed by guns every day in non-mass-shooting environments.
“There are shooting deaths almost every day in this district, every day in this country… I think that the normalization of mass shootings on some level may desensitize people. I heard a story where somebody was like, ‘Did you hear about the mass shooting that happened last week,’ and then this person asks, ‘Which one?’” said Jeremy Stein, Executive Director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence in an interview with The Politic.
School shootings tend to resonate more painfully and powerfully than in other settings and situations.
Maybe it is the tragedy inherent to ending a life so early, the dissonance between innocence and brutality, or the personal nature of such a calamity—pictures of young faces with books, playgrounds, and parks blurred in the background—that rouses rallying cries like “Hey, hey NRA, how many students did you kill today?” and signs that read, “I should be worrying about my biology test, not about dying.”
Maybe it is the desire to do something in the face of stasis and government inaction that has compelled almost every school in this country to implement active-shooter drills. “I don’t know if these drills are data-based, if they’re driven by fear, driven by some idea that [law enforcement] [is] trying to make themselves feel as though they have some control of a situation when they may not,” Stein concluded.
Motivation aside, the effectiveness of these drills remains contentious. A number of child trauma experts have recently concluded that certain drills are far too intense and traumatizing for children, comparing them to the exercises undergone by police officers and the military.
Additionally, the typical drill is discordant with expert counsel. The Department of Homeland Security developed a guide that describes what to do in the event of an active shooting; its first recommendation is to run and escape. In 2012, the Education Department shifted its active-shooter response suggestions from sheltering in place to “options-based” approaches, like running, hiding, and fighting. Yet the majority of active-shooter drills take the “lockdown” approach instead, which is “not only counterintuitive but counterproductive,” Zocco-Hochhalter asserted.
Not only is there the possibility that active shooter drills feed into the culture of gun violence itself, but they may arm the shooters with the information necessary to perpetrate violent acts while harming the victims. When The Politic asked him whether active shooter drills are effective, Representative Sean Scanlon of Connecticut’s 98th House District responded: “I do question whether or not doing these is effective… If you look at the situation in Parkland, the shooter had actually sat through one of these presentations [on how to respond to an active-shooter], and there is a question as to whether or not he gleaned information from that that he then used to harm more people. So I think we need to ask from a dual-perspective.”
While 96 percent of American public schools administer active-shooter drills—most required by state or local law—there is massive variation among the trainings and practices, and often very little oversight.
“There’s a lot of gray area with regard to active shooter drills… there are so many types of active shooter methodologies that people are putting forward…[active shooter drills today] are not being used in the right way. They’re being used to get a checkmark that ‘we’ve complied’… they don’t really put any thought or pre-planning into those,” explains Zocco-Hochhalter.
From these dramatic inconsistencies spring accounts of lockdowns with no warning; the results are tears, “good-bye” texts, kitty litter distributed during extended drills, and bullet holes drawn on students’ arms to illustrate exactly how they would have fallen victim.
“There is considerable variation in how drills are conducted across schools. At the extremes… some drills have led children to think they were experiencing an actual shooting. Yet these approaches increase the chances of terrifying children with no evidence to support taking such an approach,” adds Dylan G. Gee, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University.
Back in that school in Orlando, Florida, no one had announced the dean’s intention to storm classrooms. The procedure of the active shooter drill itself had not changed: students were very familiar with the bell, the proceeding “code red” announcement, and all of the steps a lock-down drill compelled. However, the conduct of the administrators, the very same individuals conceivably responsible for remaining calm, was different. As the administrator barged in through the fragile classroom door, the hearts of all 20 students jumped. In the few seconds between the emergence of noise and subconscious voice recognition, each student was silent and painfully still, paralyzed by fear and petrified by the unknown.
“Oftentimes, schools may move forward with drills without giving careful review of how such drills may negatively impact students,” said Christine Montgomery, Vice President of School and Community Based Services at Clifford Beers Clinic, a children’s mental health clinic in New Haven, Connecticut. Montgomery proceeded to tell The Politic, “If done correctly, safety drills are effective.” However, far too many schools do not know what a “correct” active-shooter drill truly entails, which may result in long-lasting, chilling consequences.
As they are now—with inconsistencies permeating simulated life or death situations—active shooter drills are “not beneficial but traumatic,” Zocco-Hochhalter comments. As Professor Gee analyzes, these drills “can be terrifying and have the potential to inflict psychological harm for some children, particularly those who may already be having difficulty with anxiety or who may have been exposed to trauma.”
The overarching problem is largely the profound lack of research regarding the faults and merits of school safety drills. “We just don’t know right now whether they are effective in terms of actually teaching the entire student body about them, and we also don’t know whether they’re doing more harm than good. And until we know the answer to those two questions, I think we need to look at the real problem, which is gun violence in this country and mental health in this country,” maintained Representative Scanlon. Indeed, high degrees of uncertainty saturate this significant debate, one which exists in such a formative setting.
It is possible that active-shooter drills may just be Band-Aids for bullet holes and a way to avoid addressing the true nationwide epidemic of gun violence. However, the key may not be utterly eradicating active-shooter drills, but instead implementing comprehensive and informed exercises in their place.
“It is critical that drills be designed and conducted in ways that are developmentally sensitive, based on research on effectiveness, and in consultation with mental health professionals,” elucidated Gee. Among the legislators, activists, and child psychologists interviewed, responses varied, but a consensus emerged: there are preventative measures proven to be more effective and less traumatic that can also be enacted expediently.
First, as Gee advises, “if a school is going to conduct active shooter drills, safety procedures should likely be focused on adults.”
“If the adults are calm, the children will be calm. Scaring kids does not necessarily make them more prepared, it simply makes them more anxious,” said Montgomery.
Additionally, particular emphasis must be placed on the potential of students’ prior trauma and the presence of existing conditions like anxiety. There are students and teachers who have not only survived a real-life active shooter situation but may live in places in which they experience gun trauma on a daily basis, or have a friend or family member who has undergone a similarly agonizing situation. According to Stein, practicing active-shooter drills “re-traumatizes people as well. I know this from speaking to… a teacher that was at Sandy Hook when the shooting happened. We were talking about the first day of school last year. I said, ‘How’s school going?’ and she said ‘Oh, you know, the first week of school, we had an active shooter drill’… and then it occurred to me: she’s going through a drill that basically makes her relive the nightmare that she survived.” There are several programs available that emphasize discussion-based exercises, such as seminars and workshops, in addition to operations-based drills that ensure that the community is alerted prior to the event, and the primary objective is the furtherance of safety, not the entrenchment of fear.
In an artful analogy, Stein also compared active-shooter drills to fire drills: “I don’t think there’ve been many or any school fires where people have died and the reason why that is isn’t necessarily because of the fire drills; it’s because of fire prevention.” Along with standardization and well-roundedness, preventative methods are crucial to increasing the success of active-shooter drills. “It is very clear; we have answers… it would be one thing if we didn’t know how to solve this problem, but we do; we do know how to solve it,” asserted Stein.
The solution lies in further emphasizing “social and emotional learning,” as Representative Scanlon proposes, as well as common-sense gun reform, both of which must work in tandem. Banning assault weapons, passing universal background checks and permit-to-purchase laws, and strengthening red flag laws is essential. The first step, Representative Scanlon explained, is destigmatizing mental health counseling: “We have seen so much research over the years that shows that if people… are more in touch with their emotions and… that seeking out help is not a bad thing it’s actually a good thing, they’re more likely to get treated and therefore potentially not do things like commit violent acts against their classmates or harm themselves.” Then, through risk-protection clauses, appropriate authorities must be alerted about individuals who might pose a danger to others, ensuring that they receive counseling, not access to firearms. And throughout, it is crucial that guns are only available to those with the capacity to wield such weapons safely.
Further, history has demonstrated that introducing more firearms to schools is not an antidote; in fact, there was an armed guard on campus when the Parkland shooter broke through the back door. “You can try to make your school like a fortress… make it as secure as a military armory, but it’s not going to prevent the shootings as long as the real problem, which is the ease of access to guns, is allowed in this country,” remarked Stein.
Representative Scanlon echoed such sentiments: “I do not want to be dismissive of school districts who are putting plans in place to deal with these shootings because that’s absolutely what they should be doing. Administrators and teachers should be preparing for these things… [However,] I think we need to look at the real problem, which is gun violence in this country and mental health in this country…We need to address each of them separately to try to combat these things together.”
Scanlon, Zocco-Hochhalter, Montgomery, Stein, and Gee all illustrated a similar argument: the problem is not our students; it is not our teachers; it is not our schools. It is guns, the lack of effective mental health education, and the absence of truly effective preventative methods.
Thus, the remaining question may be whether these legislators, activists, psychologists, and educators can coordinate and collaborate to promote safety and avoid traumatizing our next generation before the next school shooting occurs.
An exposed elbow in a Florida prep school should not be cause for intervention, leaving students with lasting discomfort about their administrator’s profound overreaction. Students should not tremble with uneasy anticipation as the door of their classroom clamors open. Terror must be assuaged, not with anxiety-provoking, potentially ineffective drills, but with educational and psychological support and legislative action.
Americans are becoming numb to the normalization of gun violence, as well as to the omnipresence of fear. “In the days after Parkland, I met with 20 or 30 Guilford High School students, and the first girl that spoke said that she was afraid to go to school because of what she was seeing on the news. People are already afraid,” Representative Scanlon commented. It does not have to be this way.
“What can we do to prevent these shootings?” Scanlon mused. “I believe the answer to that is by obviously passing tougher gun laws to make sure that’s not even an option for somebody who wants to harm their classmates, and moreover, making sure that we have very strong social and emotional curriculum in place.”