The drills can range from staging lockdowns and sheltering in place to quasi dramas with mock shooters roaming the halls. Although the goals of these training exercises are important, equally important are the potential negative effects of drills on students’ mental health, according to doctors with expertise in pediatrics and mental health.
“Dramatic simulation of an active shooter event at school would be expected to provoke the same stress response as the real thing,” said Peter L. Loper Jr., MD, a pediatrician and psychiatrist, in an interview. “While ensuring their physical safety is very important, we must be intentional about making sure that we are not doing so at the expense of their psychosocial or emotional safety.”
“Children may not be able to differentiate a dramatic drill from a real event,” emphasized Dr. Loper, of the neuropsychiatry and behavioral science departments at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. “The parts of the brain responsible for our flight-fight-or-freeze response would interpret both simulated and real events identically and produce the same neurohormonal stress-response.”
Indeed, a study published in the journal Humanities & Social Sciences Communications suggested children experienced mental health problems related to participating in active shooter drills. In the large study, a team of statisticians from the Georgia Institute of Technology found that students reported a 42% increase in stress and anxiety and a 38.7% increase in depression during the 90 days following active shooter drills, compared with the 90 days before the drills.
The authors of this study, including Mai ElSherief, PhD, drew these conclusions after analyzing 54 million social media posts before and after drills in 114 schools across 33 states. The researchers analyzed the language of the social media posts by teachers, parents, and students and found increased use of the words hope, love, home, school, kids, community, support, and help after the drills. The researchers considered posting with these terms in the aftermath of the drills to be indicative of having high anxiety.
They included examples of how high stress, anxiety, and depression manifested in specific posts from parents in their report. The following is an example of a poster expressing high anxiety and stress: “are we really gonna normalize school shooter drills?! holy sh* there has to be a real way to avoid these tragedies. sh*t like this cannot be normalized. teachers injured after being shot with plastic pellets ‘execution style’ in active shooter drill.”
The authors also shared this post to serve as an example of a person who seems depressed: “and now we are revisiting the trauma on our kids, forcing them to act out school drills monthly. i don’t get why gen x parents buy into this concept wholeheartedly. things need to change.”
The published material did not include posts from students, but the researchers’ analysis of the content of posts overall showed increased concerns for health and increased concerns about death during the period after drills, compared with before drills.
The authors also conducted focus groups in communities in which drills occurred, and many teachers and parents reported anecdotal evidence of children who were nervous long after the drills were over, with some showing extreme reactions such as panic over a standard fire alarm at school. Overall, the results show that school shooter drills can negatively affect school communities over prolonged periods of time, they concluded.
According to a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “there is a need to be cautious about the potential psychological risks and other unintended consequences of directly involving children in live exercises and drills.”
“These risks and consequences are especially a concern when children are deceived and led to believe there is an actual attack and not a drill,” wrote David Schonfeld, MD, the lead author of the statement on Participation of Children and Adolescents in Live Crisis Drills and Exercises, and colleagues.