Teacher unions: Children terrified by active shooter drills

FILE - In this Friday June 9, 2017 file photo, students are led out of school as members of the Fountain Police Department take part in an Active Shooter Response Training exercise at Fountain Middle School in Fountain, Colo. The nation's two largest teachers unions want schools to revise or eliminate active shooter drills, asserting Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 that they can harm students' mental health and that there are better ways to prepare for the possibility of a school shooting.

The nation's largest teachers' unions — including the Pennsylvania State Education Association — want schools to revise or eliminate active shooter drills, contending they can harm students' mental health and there are better ways to prepare for the possibility of a school shooting.

The American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association joined with the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund in calling for an end to unannounced drills or drills that simulate gun violence. Friday marked the two-year anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and faculty.

"We do practice a variety of drills in each of the schools, including lockdown drills and intruder drills," said Mifflinburg Superintendent Dan Litchel. "We are sensitive to the potential for these drills to create fear and anxiety, so we are careful about our communications with students, placing the emphasis on preparedness."

A report released this week by the Everytown group recommends schools concentrate on training teachers to respond to an active shooter incident rather than drilling students. It issued guidelines for schools that decide to use drills, including never simulating an actual shooting; giving parents, educators and students advance notice of any drill; working with mental health officials to create age-appropriate and trauma-informed drills; and tracking the effects of drills.

"We recommend backing away from active shooter drills with students," Chris Lilienthal, the PSEA's assistant communications director, said Friday. "We have heard from educators who are concerned with the potential impact on students and staff. The biggest one of all is that a drill should never be done in a way that traumatizes a kid, makes them feel uncomfortable when they go home or feel anxiety"

About 95 percent of schools drilled students on lockdown procedures in the 2015-16 school year, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“In Indiana, they were shooting teachers with rubber pellets so they would feel the adrenaline of what a school shooting would feel like," said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, which is part of Everytown. “In California recently, a superintendent hired a stranger to wear a mask to rattle the doors of classrooms without letting faculty and students know. We've seen students asked to pretend to be victims and lie down using fake blood in the hallway.”

Jean-Paul Guilbault, the chief executive of the Alice Training Institute, which runs active shooter drills, said they are effective when done appropriately. He said his company never runs surprise drills but believes that simulating an event is the best way to prepare for one “and allow students to practice their options, whether that be lockdown or evacuation.”

Lilienthal said drills should never be done in a way that mimics an active shooting. Additionally, parents, students and staffers should be informed ahead of time what the drill will entail. "There should be a clear sense of what is going to happen," he said.

Abbey Clements, who was teaching second grade at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown when a gunman killed 26 people in 2012, said she doesn't believe a drill would have saved lives there.

“Our students knew what to do,” said Clements, who now teaches at another elementary school in town. “We taught them what to do in an emergency. We knew evacuation routes and where a safe spot was in the room, where nobody could see inside. But frightening students with some type of active drill, I think that is barbaric. There is no way you could possibly be prepared for the infinite number of ways that a shooting could go down with these weapons of war."

Clements, an active member of Moms Demand Action, said it breaks her heart when she hears stories like the one about a little girl who refused to wear light-up shoes after a drill because she was told it could make her an easier target.

“I've got kids at the elementary school level who tell me they have to keep a cell phone on them at all times, just in case,” she said. “It should not be like that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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