School safety drills: What’s the impact on kids?

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Along with fire drills, school children routinely practice active shooter drills.

Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, students and educators from elementary to high school have learned to lock doors and hunker down in classrooms, or follow a protocol that urges them to take one of three actions — run, hide or fight, depending on the circumstances.

Aside from wondering if the drills are effective, some educators — and parents — are asking whether the drills are damaging to the students’ mental health.

Dr. Donna Christy, a school psychologist with the Prince George’s County School system, said her own observation is that kids don’t always take the drills seriously.

In observing her own 5th-grade daughter, Christy said, “When I ask her about it, it doesn’t seem to affect her or bother her. She doesn’t think much about it.”

When asked if she thinks kids are negatively affected by the drills, Christy said, “I think it does maybe take away a little bit of their innocence in terms of believing that the world is generally a safe place.”

But she adds the drills themselves may not the problem. The way gun violence is discussed and framed for children is more important, she said.

Christy said it can lessen the anxiety of the students when teachers frame the drills as a matter of routine. If a teacher focuses on the threats that the drill is meant to address, that can escalate a child’s fears. Teachers and parents, she said, can let kids know the focus is on safety.

“Let them know that everybody just wants to make sure that everybody’s safe” she said.

When the subject of school violence comes up, Christy said parents and teachers should be honest.

“Listen to their feelings, listen to their thoughts and validate their feelings” she said.

Children can be reassured by knowing they can play a role in making their school safer. “You want them to also take part in keeping the community safe, by reporting what they see and hear to their teacher, their school counselor, to their principal,” Christy said.

After the Parkland, Florida, shooting last year, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan introduced a legislative package designed to increase school safety. This year, lawmakers are working on implementing parts of that package by establishing procedures to help identify and report threats of violence at schools.

Christy said part of prevention needs to be an emphasis on issues that lead students to commit violence.

“Happy, healthy children don’t walk into schools and shoot them up,” Christy said. “The more we can address the underlying issues that cause somebody to do something, the safer our schools will be.”

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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