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Some lockdown drills can harm students' mental health. Here's what one expert advises

Flowers sit a sign outside Oxford High School a day after a deadly shooting at the school on Dec. 1 in Oxford, Mich.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Flowers sit a sign outside Oxford High School a day after a deadly shooting at the school on Dec. 1 in Oxford, Mich.

The shooting at Oxford, Mich., drew attention to the school's lockdown drills and how students were trained to respond to such crises. But certain high-intensity drills can have negative impacts, too.

Community members and national onlookers are still reeling from last week's deadly shooting at a high school in Oxford, Mich., for which one student and his parents are facing charges.

The tragedy is highlighting an ongoing debate about school shooter drills and the best way to prepare students for the worst, while considering their mental well-being.

How Oxford students responded to the shooting

Oxford High School's most recent safety drill was in early October, according to its website. The school is one of many across the country that uses the ALICE Training Program, a controversial method that goes beyond traditional lockdowns and whose name stands for "Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate."

ALICE's website says it trains students on how to most effectively barricade rooms, communicate with police and use their time in lockdown to potentially prepare to counter a shooter if they gain entry (it stresses that step should be a last resort). Critics argue this approach could traumatize students and even increase their chances of being killed.

Video footage posted to social media of the students' response to the shooter showed them rushing out of first-floor windows rather than opening the classroom door, while other classrooms reportedly shoved desks against their doors and grabbed scissors for defense in case the attacker got inside — as they had been trained to do in lockdown drills.

Some students and county officials have credited the Oxford school's lockdown drills with saving lives and preventing an even worse outcome. The CEO of the ALICE Training Institute's parent company told nonprofit education site The 74that the Oxford community "would have seen three to 10 X the number of deaths" without the company's guidance.

But while active shooter drills have become common practice across much of the country, some experts and parents worry they may do more harm than good, particularly if they involve simulation.

One of those critics is Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles. He spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep about how high-intensity drills can harm students' mental health, and shared what alternatives he would propose instead.

Listen to the full conversation here or read on for details. And a note of warning, this story contains content some people may find upsetting.

Interview Highlights

Most schools have active shooter drills, but specifics vary

Most states require drills related to active shooter situations, Schonfeld says, but how they're carried out varies between individual schools and communities.

The first step is to discuss the drill and make sure students understand what they're supposed to do, he adds. The next phase typically consists of drills or exercises in which students are asked to take action to minimize risk within their classrooms, like locking doors, turning off lights, closing blinds and moving to a less visible area.

Some schools go a step further with what Schonfeld calls high-intensity drills, or those that involve an element of simulation like an actor pretending to be a shooter or sound effects mimicking bullets. Schonfeld says we don't have enough experience to know which particular types of preparation may help the most, but experts do know that high-intensity drills are inevitably going to be upsetting to children and even teens and adults.

High-intensity drills can cause emotional distress

Some schools carry out these drills without informing children — or sometimes staff — that they aren't real, which Schonfeld says can be very realistic and distressing.

He recalls instances of children thinking they might die and scribbling notes to their parents in an effort to say goodbye.

"There was one report of a child who actually wrote with a marker on her body so that when her body was found she would be able to let her parents know that she loved them," he adds.

Such drills can be upsetting for children of any age, Schonfeld explains, as peoples' understanding of risk and skills for coping with distress evolve as they get older. For example, he said a 7-year-old may be capable of understanding what the drill is meant to try to prevent but may be less able to cope with their feelings, while a 17-year-old may have a greater sense of vulnerability and fear.

There are ways to make live drills less potentially damaging

Schonfeld emphasizes that it's important for children to be reasonably prepared to take action if something tragic were to happen, with the goal of helping students learn how they should be moving safely in a crisis situation.

He believes less-intense live drills can help accomplish that. And that's not a totally new phenomenon for most schools, he notes.

"We do fire drills in schools, and those are live drills where children exit schools and quietly," Schonfeld says. "There's no attempt at smoke to make it feel like a fire, there's no necessity to have people screaming in the hallways."

Preparations should involve more than just drills

More broadly, Schonfeld says school shootings are a complicated problem with more than one solution.

"We can't be putting all of our resources in just preparing kids for active shooters," he says. "What we need to do is put a lot of resources, perhaps much more resources, into preventing them in the first place."

That would entail more support for behavioral health in schools, and investment in social-emotional development in children more generally. Schonfeld says that could look like training students to be able to better identify distress among their peers and get them help.

"We have to invest our resources in prevention as well as in what to do when prevention isn't successful," he adds.

The digital version of this story originally appeared in theMorning Editionlive blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.