WASHINGTON — After the first day of school at Mark T. Sheehan High School in Wallingford, Connecticut, Mackenzie Bushey, a 15-year-old junior, came home upset that a teacher enforced a no-cellphones policy by confiscating students’ phones before class. She needed her cell, Mackenzie told her family last month, to notify police should a gunman attack her school.
And also, she said, “to say my final goodbye to you.”
Mackenzie’s mother, Brenda Bushey, blames her daughter’s fears on monthly active-shooter drills at Sheehan High. “I understand they’re trying to think about the children’s best interests,” Bushey said in an interview. “But you can’t help but think of how it’s affecting them.”
Nearly every American public school now conducts lockdown drills — 96% in 2015 and 2016 — according to the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. Law enforcement officials and many school administrators say they are crucial for preparing and safeguarding students, but methods vary widely and now include drills that child trauma experts say do little more than terrify already anxious children.
“A whole new cottage industry has emerged where people who don’t know anything about kids are jumping in and adapting protocols for groups like police officers or people preparing for combat,” said Bruce D. Perry, founder of the ChildTrauma Academy, whose clinical team assists maltreated and traumatized children through counseling, research and education. As a result, Perry said in an interview, “The number of developmentally uninformed, child-uninformed and completely stupid ideas is mind-numbing.”
The news media attention and policy debate surrounding school shootings, and the heartbreaking details of massacres like Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland, heighten the perceived risk among parents and students alike. After the shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, nearly 60% of American teenagers said they were very or somewhat worried about a mass shooting at school, a similar proportion as parents, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
In fact, while the vast majority of gun-related homicides involving children occur in the United States, only a tiny percentage occur on school grounds. But August’s spate of mass shootings, including in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Odessa and Midland, Texas, have lent urgency to a flood of new preparedness efforts.
The number of armed assailant drills in American public schools increased after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, when the Education Department changed its active-shooter response recommendations from sheltering in place to “options-based” approaches like “run, hide, fight” — training created for adults faced with workplace violence.
The security industry responded, promoting and selling programs that schools and local law enforcement officers adapt with fake blood, menacing masked “shooters” and simulated gunfire. Last year at Short Pump Middle School in Glen Allen, Virginia, school officials staged an unannounced active-shooter drill featuring multiple fire alarms, loud noises and unseen people jiggling the handles of classroom doors.
Thinking it was a real attack, students wept and texted goodbyes. Afterward, parents were furious.
In guidance updated in 2017, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers acknowledged that such drills had the potential to empower staff and save lives. But the groups warned that “without proper caution, they can risk causing harm to participants.”
Psychologists and many educators say frequent, realistic drills contribute to anxiety and depression in children, and they have begun urging school systems to rethink active-shooter training for children and to teach preventive measures, like recognizing and seeking help for troubled classmates.
Alice Forrester, the chief executive of the Clifford Beers Child Clinic in New Haven, Connecticut, was part of a team that helped notify and counsel Sandy Hook victims’ families, and helped devise an emotional health program for surviving children returning to school. She also served on the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, a multidisciplinary body whose final report recommended a range of measures to help reduce the chances of a similar tragedy.
Early on, the commission focused on school security. “Then we heard from Dr. Marisa Randazzo, one of the authors of the Safe Schools Study,” Forrester said. The 1999 shooting deaths of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School prompted the study, by the Secret Service and the Education Department, of 37 prior episodes of school violence.
The agencies found “that in almost every instance, people had concern about the shooter and that the shooter had indicated need for help,” Forrester said.
An additional 2008 report, known as the Bystander Study, found that people who knew in advance about an attacker’s plans were friends, classmates or siblings, suggesting attacks “might have been avoided with proper observation techniques and more open sharing of information.”