A parkland victim.

Debate About How To Prepare For School Shootings Grows

In the middle of the 20th century, American schools used to run “duck and cover” drills in which students were taught to hide beneath their desks under the pretext that doing so would protect them from an atomic bomb. The A-bomb didn’t end up dropping in the United States. It was Japan that felt the brunt of those blasts. But today, it’s widely acknowledged – and even commonly joked about – that hiding under a miniature desk is unlikely to shield anyone from a nuclear attack.

Yet those drills show that keeping young children safe from the violence of the outside world has always been a difficult undertaking. It is no different today, with experts across the country in disagreement about how to prepare for the possibility of a mass shooting.

Public schools in Wisconsin are spending millions of dollars to prepare for the possibility of an attack. Classrooms and corridors are now places of surveillance cameras, locked doors, safety glass and drills in which students and teachers barricade themselves inside their classrooms.

In the Mount Horeb Area School District, the largest spending referendum ($38.5 million) in the district’s history recently passed, including multiple “safety and security” items. In recent years, local students and teachers have been instructed by administrators to hold regular drills in which to prepare for a variety of “critical incidents,” as mandated by state law. In nearby Middleton-Cross Plains, the district’s emergency preparedness manual has ballooned to 155 pages.

While there are many types of emergencies for which schools prepare, from fires to gas leaks, one potential tragedy – a shooting - inspires the most fear, and often the most disagreement about how to prepare children. Everyone agrees that school shootings are tragedies that must be stopped, but there is a robust and growing debate about whether drills do more harm than good.

There is also new information coming to light about how rare these tragedies remain. In fact, there have been several recent studies and reports by experts showing that school shootings, while they make for the most horrific headlines in this modern age of constant global news, are actually on the decline in the United States. There is also little, and in some cases no data, showing that new models being used in schools actually work to protects students and staff.

The Mount Horeb Area School District is similar to many in southern Wisconsin. It has 2,500 students and receives roughly $30 million in funding annually. Each year, every student receives about $12,000 in public aid. It has an estimated 170 classroom teachers. Its students achieve high test scores, and come primarily from stable, loving homes.

But in Mount Horeb, as in virtually every other town in the United States, school shootings are regularly discussed as local educators, policymakers and parents grapple with the tragedies that have proliferated the headlines in recent years. The school district has chosen to design its training partially – and only partially - on a controversial for-profit model called ALICE, which stands for “Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate.” The ALICE Training Institute is a corporation that says it “provides sustainable active shooter training and preparedness solutions for organizations of all sizes in a variety of industries.”

Mount Horeb administrators teamed up with the DeForest School District, ALICE Training, and the Dane County Sheriff’s Office to prepare their plan. Local administrators used materials and ideas from the Sun Prairie, Waunakee, and Monona Grove School Districts, along with the Department of Homeland Security.

 

HOW COMMON ARE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS?

While awareness of attacks in schools has grown exponentially in recent years, thanks to the rapidly changing ways national news is disseminated, they are actually not a 21st Century problem.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Harvard instructor David Ropeik wrote that the first recorded school shooting in the United States took place in 1840, when a law student shot and killed his professor at the University of Virginia.

They are perhaps the most terrifying type of evil facing the country today, particularly for parents. While innocent people have lost their lives, however, school shootings remain rare.

National Public Radio (NPR) reported three months ago that school shootings, despite public perception, are on the decline in the United States. “The overall number of students killed in shootings at schools is down from the early 1990s to about 0.15 per million in 2014-2015, according to researchers at Northeastern University,” NPR reported. “One Harvard instructor estimated the likelihood of a public school student being killed by a gun in school on any given day between 1999 and 2018 at about 1 in 614 million.”

That professor (Ropeik) went on the say that roughly 50 million children attend public schools for roughly 180 days each year, and an estimated 200 have been shot to death in the last 20 years. “That means the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000. And since the 1990s, shootings at schools have been getting less common,” he wrote.

Putting such tragedies into statistical context can be problematic, however, when faced with visceral images of those who suffer when they do occur.

In 2019, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson faced backlash for pointing out that even when mass shootings happen, they still claim far less lives that the flu, suicide, car accidents and medical errors on the dame day.

Melissa A. Reeves, Ph.D, NCSP, LPC, a professor in the School Psychology Program & Psychology Department at Winthrop University, put it simply when she stated: “Schools are still the safest places for our kids.”

Reeves is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, a Licensed Special Education Teacher, Licensed Professional Counselor, and Past-President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). She said “one school shooting is still too many.”

She is part of a growing chorus in a recent national push to evaluate the ways schools are preparing for shootings. Reeves and many others say “highly sensorial” active shooter drills can do more harm than good, scaring and traumatizing children and teachers, rather than actually keeping them safe.

 

ARE DRILLS HELPING OR HARMING?

“We are all in agreement” that schools need to prepare for the remote threat of a shoot shooting, Reeves told the Mail. But she says a focus on active shooters in schools across the country, and the use of ALICE training in particular, stem more from scare tactics being spread by a for-profit company than any reliable data regarding their efficacy.  She said many of the training protocols being used were developed almost solely by people with a law enforcement background.

“They have no education background, and they have no mental health background,” Reeves stated.

While school districts say they are working to address mental health issues among students, Reeves says some of the tactics being used to prepare for active shooters might actually have a net negative impact and contribute to mental health problems.

“We are using methods that are not proven with kids, and in many cases we may be causing harm,” she said.

Reeves is particularly critical of ALICE, which has been sued for allegedly traumatizing and injuring school staff.

“The training tends to lean toward a highly sensorial training experience,” Reeves said. She added that there is no evidence these “scare tactics” work.

“We don’t light fires in hallways for our fire drills,” she said.

“I’ve been through ALICE training myself,” she said, adding that it is not standardized and can vary widely. ALICE brings in annual revenue of approximately $80 million, according to reports.

“They don’t address developmental appropriateness,” she said, adding: “These companies just keep spinning data to get people to buy into [what they are selling].”

So, is there proof that any of this will make kids safer? “No,” said Reeves. “There are no empirical studies showing that highly sensorial [drills] are more effective.” She says the lone study to which proponents of the drills point was “so fundamentally flawed” it should never be considered.

The data showing they can be harmful, however, is real, Reeves asserted, providing an assortment of studies and news reports, along with recommendations by the National Association of School Psychologists. 

“We are out there showing concrete data, and no one wants to believe it,” Reeves aid.

 

‘WE’VE GOT TO GET BACK TO THE

HUMAN LEVEL’

According to Reeves, the safest thing to do during an attack is fairly simple: Lock the door.

Barricades and other techniques have not been proven effective, she said. According to her research, a total of two students – one in Red Lakes and one at Parkland - have been fatally shot while behind a locked door.

“Getting behind a locked door is still the safest method,” she said. “Then you evacuate when you know it’s safe.”

She went on to say that much of the money currently being used to prepare for a shooting might be better spent working to prevent those shooters from descending into such darkness that they attack in the first place.

“Wisconsin schools just spent $60 million on [security] hardware,” she said. “Imagine how that money would help mental health initiatives that could prevent future shootings, if it went there instead.”

“We’ve got to get back to the human level,” she said. “The way we prevent [shootings] is through human connections.”

She also said there is data confirming that calm drills can increase knowledge without increasing anxiety.

Reeves said the initial reception to her critiques was tepid. She says parents, teachers, administrators and school board members felt they had to go along with active shooter training or risk being complicit in another tragedy.

“They get scared into thinking, if I don’t do this there’s blood on my hands,” Reeves said. “[But] we’re not saying don’t be prepared.”

“Parents didn’t feel like they could say anything,” she said. “Oh, yes you can. It’s your child.”

Over the last year, people have become increasingly receptive to that message.

“It’s really led to a phenomenal dialogue across the country,” she said.

Reeves said the drills should always be announced beforehand, and teachers, support staff and students should all have the option of opting out.

That’s why many school districts in Wisconsin have chosen not to use ALICE techniques, or have cut them after initial implementation.

 

PLANS VARY FROM

DISTRICT TO DISTRICT

All private and public schools in southern Wisconsin have to come up with their own plan for active shooters and other threats, as mandated by state law. In Mount Horeb, some ALICE techniques have been embraced – such as having kindergarten children and their teachers practice barricading the classroom door - but many others, such as teaching high schoolers to attack shooters, or staging surprise “active shooter drills” in which students and staff come under simulated attack, have been eschewed for less dramatic methods.

Across Wisconsin, different districts are taking different approaches.

Wisconsin Heights is one of the districts that has embraced ALICE.

“During the summer of 2018 (two days) and 2019 (one day), our school safety team collaborated with officials from the Dane County Sheriff’s Department on ALICE training,” said Jordan Sinz, the Wisconsin Heights administrator. “This training has supported updates to our district crisis plan and staff development plans.  Our partners from the Dane County Sheriff’s department also joined our entire staff for a half-day of in-service at the start of the school year (2018 and 2019).”

“This adult learning, coupled with student/staff development in the area of school safety, has served as our framework for crisis response training,” Sinz continued. “Each of our schools has worked with their staff/students to foster learning in a developmentally appropriate fashion.”

Brian Johnson is the Mount Horeb Area School District’s director of student services. He acknowledged that ALICE has been controversial, which is why, he said, administrators in his district have only borrowed some elements of the training.

“A group of us, administrators only, went through ALICE training,” Johnson said.

He says it was important that local schools update their plan.

“The drill before was to turn out the lights, lock the door, and hide,” Johnson said. “That’s what we did until three years ago.”

“What I took away from [the training] was that that [former approach] does not work,” he added.

But some elements of the training won’t find their way into Mount Horeb, he continued. 

“ALICE in its full implementation is not going to meet the needs of our kids and our families,” Johnson said. 

“We’re not even close to that,” he said. “We took a much lighter approach. But they are still important skills.”

“We are not teaching [students] to fight,” he said.

Johnson also said Mount Horeb is particularly focused on making sure such training is “age appropriate.”

“We did evacuation drills where the kids didn’t even know they were evacuation drills,” he said. “It was just, ‘Hey, this is a safe place you can go that’s close to school.’”

“It’s not just a school shooter [that’s being prepared for],” he said.

The discussion changes as students mature. “We can have more honest conversations as kids get older,” Johnson said.

“It starts to come out more in Middle School, because kids watch the news,” he stated.

Johnson said in frank conversations with students, they have expressed that they need to know their teachers and administrators have a plan, in order to feel safe. “Some said, ‘You don’t need to tell us what the plan is, but we need to know you have a plan.’”

“We did staff training with the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, and our [Mount Horeb] Police helped with it as well,” Johnson continued.

He said feedback from parents and teachers has been encouraging, so far. “After our training with staff, we did a survey and it was all positive,” he said.

“This makes them feel some power, to have a plan,” Johnson said.

When it comes to that plan, Mount Horeb went with a “less is more” approach.

“Our emergency guide is one page,” Johnson said. “A teacher in an emergency doesn’t have time to find tabs in a binder.”

Johnson said it is important that the district’s plan is simple, easy to follow, and in place, whether or not it is ever needed.

“Your body can’t go where your mind hasn’t been,” Johnson stated.

 

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