The benefits, drawbacks of school shooting drills and how some worry about the psychological effects

NORTH ATTLEBORO, Mass — On the first day of school at North Attleboro High, spirits were running high.

“The first day of school is probably the best day of the year in so many ways,” said Dr. John Antonucci, North Attleboro’s school superintendent. “A fresh start. The amount of energy and enthusiasm and excitement for the year ahead. There’s nothing like it.”

Keeping that energy and enthusiasm high is one of the toughest academic jobs for school administrators. But these days, they’ve got other things to think about -- such as school shootings.

“Our kids are living in a different world than we were living in,” Antonucci said. “The amount of school shootings -- they’ve skyrocketed in the last decade. So safety and security have become, as they should be, our absolute number one priority.”

To that end, North Attleboro High, like the vast majority of school districts in the country, will conduct school shooting drills.

“We have no choice,” Antonucci said. “We have to make sure that we are ready for the worst-case scenario. And that’s not something we were talking about 25 years ago.”

But 25 years from now, will educators be talking about the potential damage done by active shooter drills -- which can sometimes be quite elaborate and realistic.

“There are people acting as if they’re shooters, there are gun noises, there’s fake blood,” said Alice Connors-Kellgren, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Tufts Medical Center. “That stuff is really bad for kids.”

Of course, many might argue getting shot is even worse. Connors-Kellgren said if schools plan to hold drills, it’s important to give kids a warning that the drills are going to happen -- and exactly what’s going to happen. But, she added, the drills should not include heavy doses of realism.

“We should really be emphasizing that these drills are about the adults helping to keep them safe, Connors-Kellgren said. “Rather than making the kids feel like they need to be heroes and respond to these events on their own.”

And yet -- singular safety has become the focus of active shooter drills.

Last year, North Attleboro rolled out a new safety and training protocol that boils down to three concepts: Run, Hide or Fight.

“The idea is really about empowering students and staff to make their own decisions in the event of an active shooter situation or any kind of violent episode,” Antonucci said.

Run, Hide or Fight are the options for students and faculty -- in descending order of preference.

The FBI endorses Run, Hide or Fight -- a strategy that replaces the former method of dealing with active shooters -- automatic lockdowns. Antonucci said that, unfortunately, huddling in a classroom has made children sitting ducks in some school shootings -- such as Sandy Hook.

“School shootings and violence in schools... it used to be an abstract thing,” Antonucci said. “It’s not abstract anymore.”

But it continues to be a rare thing. The U.S. has nearly 99,000 public schools. But over the last three academic years, only a handful endured a school shooter attack. Security.org reports 21 incidents from 2020 through June 2023, with 52 injured and 37 killed. In a similar period, school gun incidents -- which would include such things as brandishing a gun, firing at a school building, accidental shootings and suicides -- numbered 900 according to the K-12 School Shooting Database.

Some would suggest these relative scarcities beg the question of whether active shooter drills are overkill -- especially given one study found they increased anxiety in students in the weeks following the drill by 42% -- and depression by 39%.

That doesn’t surprise Antonucci.

“They do cause anxiety with some students. They do cause anxiety with some staff and certainly parents,” he said. “But the question is, what else are we supposed to do?”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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