Editorial: Active shooter drill scared kids needlessly

November17cartoonAmerican schools have long used drills to prepare students, faculty and rescue workers to properly respond to an emergency. A fire drill, for example, is commonly used so students know where to go and how to act during a fire. However, events such as the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings have prompted a fairly new type of drill to emerge in many states: active shooter drills.

An active shooter drill is used to train students and faculty, emergency responders or both how to act in the event of an active school shooter. To many, that may sound like a good thing, and it often is. However, there is such thing as a drill going too far. A drill can become so realistic and stressful that it causes more harm than good. Such is the case in the drill police officers in Winder Haven, Fla., conducted at Jewett Middle Academy last Thursday.

There are multiple reasons why this training exercise was inappropriate, but first and foremost is that students, parents and faculty were not told about the drill before or even during it. In fact, the school didn’t inform parents about the drill until after it happened, through an email. At least one parent, Stacy Ray, thought her daughter was in real danger after she sent a text to Ray about how she was scared because she thought a shooter was at her school.

The drill started in the morning when the principal announced the school was going on lockdown. Lockdown drills are not uncommon and Jewett Middle Academy experienced two non-drill lockdowns over the past year. The Thursday morning training became unusual when two police officers, with guns drawn, burst into classrooms where students were huddled together in the dark.

At that point, the police told the students and teachers it was a drill, but the damage was already done. Bursting into a dark room, with guns drawn, filled with middle-school kids is enough to traumatize those children, even if you tell them it was just a drill after.

One officer, the school’s resource officer, carried his loaded handgun from class to class while the other had an unloaded AR-15. The officers said they never pointed the guns at any students and that the resource officer’s gun was loaded because it was required to be.

Multiple students have said they genuinely feared for their lives and many parents are outraged that they were not notified about the drill. In an emailed response, Polk County Public Schools spokesman Jason Geary said, “Unfortunately, no one gets an advanced notice of real life emergencies. We don’t want students to be scared, but we need them to be safe.”

Winter Haven Police Chief Charlie Bird also said, “It’s very important that, when you do your drill, you do it without everyone knowing that it’s a drill. How you train and how you prepare is how you’re going to react when everything goes bad.”

The problem with Chief Bird’s logic is that realistic training principles were meant for emergency workers, not middle-school students. The benefits of realistic training for police and military are well documented in books such as “On Killing” by Retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Grossman is a huge proponent of realistic and stressful training, the big difference though, is that the police officers and military personnel are aware that they are in training. The realistic training usually involves some sort of exercise and simulation rounds to simulate stress. But at no point do the military or police trainees believe they are in a real life shoot out.

Which leads to another question about Thursday’s drill: Was it training for the kids or for the police? The children already participate in lockdown drills where teachers are responsible for securing their students in classrooms until police show up to clear the scene. The students and faculty do the exact same thing in a lockdown and active shooter drill. The only difference is, during the active shooter training, the police are on scene to practice their role, something that could be done with no children present. In fact, officials in at least two neighboring Florida counties said their officers conduct drills when the schools are empty and usually over a holiday break. Many other schools across the nation provide an advanced notice and some even train and involve students in the drills.

To debunk Chief Bird’s logic even further, schools don’t simulate an actual fire during a fire drill. Some schools announce the fire drill and some don’t, but nobody stages a fire to make children believe they are going to burn alive unless they exit their school through the appropriate path.

According to a Wall Street Journal report on active shooter drills, since Sandy Hook, more and more states are requiring some sort of drill to prepare for mass shootings. Only six states, Okla., Mo., Ill., Tenn., Ark.,  and N.J., specifically mandate active shooter drills for schools while 26 other states require general school lockdown or safety drills. Also, many businesses started conducting their own mass shooting training and thursday’s training wasn’t the first active shooter drill to receive complaints.

Last October Michelle Meeker, a Colorado nurse, was at work when a strange man approached her, presented a gun and forced her into an empty room while she begged for her life. The strange man was actually a police officer who was part of an unannounced drill. The officer eventually told Ms. Meeker who he was but she was already traumatized and confused. Meeker said she didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Meeker ultimately filed a lawsuit against the officer and the nursing home’s faculty, saying she was so traumatized that she had to quit her job.

James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, says mass shootings do not appear to be rising. Also, U.S. homicide rates are lower now that at almost any time in the last century and have fallen more than 50 percent since 1991. Furthermore, mass shootings, even when using a broad definition, usually make up less than one percent of homicides.

With that information taken into account, why would anyone think it necessary to risk traumatizing children in order to train police officers for an event as or even less likely to occur than a decade ago?

Making policy and acting without facts leads to this kind of irresponsible behavior. There is a difference between helping children be safe and overreacting. The Polk County School District said officers will not have weapons in their hands during future active shooter drills.

Hopefully they learned more lessons than to only correct that mistake.

Nobody teaches a child to stop, drop and roll by setting them on fire first. It is irresponsible and illogical to suggest children must experience fear in order to know how to respond to an active shooter in their school.