Kids going back to school in a pandemic are met with another trauma: Active shooter drills

Margaret Fram’s 5-year-old daughter already knows what to do if there is an active shooter at her school. She’s participated in six emergency drills this year. 

She did so from the comfort – or, at least, within the confines – of her New Jersey home. While the school has reopened for in-person classes, the family opted to stick with distance learning for the rest of the semester.

While discussions about school safety have been dominated by the coronavirus over the past year, the reopening of more schools and two recent mass shootings that killed 18 people are reminding parents of a threat that had momentarily receded from their list of fears: school massacres.

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And here’s an even more chilling thought: Experts worry that schools may be more vulnerable to violent attacks than they were before the pandemic. That’s because underlying factors — including gun-related deaths and reports of mental health concerns among youths — were only getting worse. 

Active shooter drills — required in roughly 40 states — may only make matters worse, with scant evidence of their effectiveness and growing concern of the traumatizing effect they may have on the children they’re intended to keep safe.

Fram recalled observing a drill alongside her daughter, whose teacher captured the event in real-time through her iPad. The lights went off and everything went still. Students – including those like her daughter who were learning from home – were instructed to do nothing and stay quiet for 10 or so minutes. 

Fram has worked as a substitute teacher and understands the school’s desire to “keep everything as normal as possible” now that classrooms have reopened. In a country with more school shootings than all the other most advanced industrial nations combined, she recognizes that normal means preparing for a mass shooting.  

First grader Kayden Welch gets frustrated with his computer at Cliffdale Elementary School on Monday, March 15, 2021. (Photo: Andrew Craft, USA TODAY Network)

But the drills “felt completely pointless to me,” Fram said. “It just seems like it’s unnecessarily digging up trauma. … It’s one more thing to put on my mental checklist of ‘OK, I have to explain this to my child.’” 

Return of school shootings?

First, the good news: The 10 school shootings reported in 2020 while schools were closed by COVID-19 concerns for part of the year were down significantly from the 25 shootings the previous year and the 24 shootings in 2018.

Now, the bad: 2020 also witnessed a record-breaking number of gun-related deaths and a record-high number of gun sales in the U.S. Rates of mental-health challenges such as anxiety and depression among the country’s youth also got worse over the past year.

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That’s no surprise to experts like Kenneth Trump, president of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services. He sees the pandemic as exacerbating  conditions in certain students that “could potentially add another level” to the likelihood that violent behavior will take place. 

“For those who tend to be higher risk of perpetrating violence – whether it’s bullying or [committing] a school shooting – we know that undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues are often a factor,” Trump said.

He is far from the only one to worry that a return to school could mean a return to campus massacres.

“I am very concerned about this time bomb that could be heading for us if we’re not adequately prepared,” said Nicole Hockley, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, an organization that aims to protect children from gun violence. Hockley’s son Dylan was one of the 20 children, along with six educators, who were murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.

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