Texas Revamps ‘Active-Shooter’ Drills at K-12 Schools to Minimize Trauma

Renuka Rayasam and Colleen DeGuzman

AUSTIN, Texas — After Britt Kelly’s son participated in a lockdown drill two years ago in his Lamar, Texas, kindergarten class, he had nightmares and wet his bed. Now 8, he can sleep only with a light on.

In August, Mary Jackson’s daughter, a kindergartner in Leander, asked her mom to put a “special lock” on her bedroom door to “keep bad adults out” in the wake of a separate lockdown drill.

Clay Giampaolo, a high school senior with special needs, said that after drills at his school in Plano, he goes to the special education room to “calm down.”

As the nation reevaluates its gun laws, training for violent threats has become a grisly yet commonplace reality in K-12 schools. More than 40 states require schools to prepare students to react when a campus comes under attack. Nearly every student in America experiences at least one or more of these drills a year, even though their effectiveness has been hotly debated by state legislators, school staffers, safety experts, and parents.

About 98% of public schools taught students lockdown procedures before the pandemic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The reasons for them are clear: The 2020-21 school year saw 93 school shootings with casualties, the highest number in two decades, according to the NCES. While school shootings are rare, they have devastating consequences.

But the preparations for these events also can come with a price. “The literal trauma caused just by them is horrifying,” Giampaolo said.

Anxiety, stress, and depression increased 39%-42% in K-12 students following lockdown drills, according to a study published in December in the journal Nature that examined social media posts. The drills, especially those that involve simulations, heightened students’ fear around the possibility of a shooting and made them feel unsafe in school. The more realistic the drill, the more fear they provoked. Students like Giampaolo who have special needs, and those who have experienced previous trauma, are among the most affected, according to safety experts.

At least one state is taking a step toward balancing school safety and student health. To minimize trauma to participants, new Texas regulations require schools to ensure that drills don’t simulate shootings — a change that comes just one semester after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde.

“If some kids are coming away traumatized or we’re magnifying existing trauma, we’re not moving in the right direction,” said Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, an advocacy group that supported the bill.

Texas mandates that schools complete two lockdown drills a year. But there was confusion and wide-ranging interpretations about how they should be conducted, said state Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, a Democrat who sponsored the bill that passed during the 2021 legislative session.

Despite a growing body of research about how to prepare for worst-case scenarios, not all schools are following best practices and there’s no way to tell which ones are, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York-Oswego, who has argued in favor of drills.

“We have no national standard, no national guidance, and no tracking system,” Schildkraut said.

In extreme cases, schools simulate shootings, with officers brandishing weapons or mimicking gunshot sounds, which she said is unnecessarily traumatizing for both students and staff members. “We don’t set schools on fire to practice a fire drill,” said Schildkraut.

The Texas rules now more clearly distinguish between lockdown drills, which are required, and active-threat exercises, which are voluntary and can involve re-creating aspects of a shooting.

A drill doesn’t involve fake injuries or gunshot sounds. Instead, students either talk through what to do, or practice activities like turning off the lights, locking doors, and staying quiet and away from windows.

Active-threat exercises, which are intended to train first responders, might involve realistic depictions of injured students or loud sounds. They give officials in different jurisdictions a chance to plan a coordinated response, said Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center. But schools need to plan those simulations carefully without requiring student participation, she said.

The new regulations require schools to tailor drills and exercises to students’ ages and development, but they focus on creating guardrails for active threat exercises. Students aren’t banned from participating in exercises, a move some gun safety and parents’ groups wanted. But the rules advise schools to carry them out during a time when students are not on campus. They also require that everyone involved be given adequate notice before an exercise and a public announcement be made immediately before, so that no participants confuse a simulation with an actual shooter.

The measure, which also orders school districts to find ways to minimize potential trauma to students and staffers, such as consulting mental health professionals while planning the drills, was in effect during the previous school year. But the Texas Education Agency didn’t finalize rules until this year.

The clarifications come as schools renew their focus on safety. “Especially everything that came out of Uvalde, this legislation is more important than ever,” Ordaz Perez said.

The measure is a sign of incremental progress, but it is not comprehensive, said Blair Taylor, an advocate at Moms Demand Action in Texas, a nonprofit that focuses on ending gun violence. She wants the Texas legislature to do more to prevent school shootings from taking place at all.

These are “band-aids for bullet holes,” Taylor said. “We are not addressing the actual problem of easy access to guns and toxic gun culture.”

The Texas American Federation of Teachers is creating posters to make sure teachers know about the new rules, so they can file any complaints to school districts. But the Texas regulations don’t specify punitive measures if districts fail to comply.

The San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District has no plans to change how it conducts drills this year, said Doug Wozniak, the district’s director of safety and health services.

Once a semester, students are instructed to hide in a corner silently while first responders go through the hallways and “lightly jiggle” classroom doorknobs, he said. Officers then yell, “Police, open up.” Students with special needs aren’t exempt from these lockdown drills, he said, but officers try to check on classrooms with those students first so that they can quickly resume class.

After the drill, students, teachers, and first responders gather in the cafeteria to debrief.

But even jiggling doorknobs might be too much like a simulation for many students, particularly those who are younger or have experienced a previous shooting, some experts say.

When schools simulate any aspect of a shooting, they can potentially make students feel unsafe on school grounds, said M. Aurora Vasquez, vice president of state policy and engagement for Sandy Hook Promise.

“The anxiety starts to sit with them on a regular basis when they go to school,” she said.

Texas limits the number of all types of drills that school districts should perform to 16 per school year, but many argue that lockdown drills don’t need to be conducted frequently.

“When you start doing these drills every month, which some school districts require, then it starts to suggest they are relatively likely,” said David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “That is a bad perception for kids.”

Many students say that the way Texas schools are currently conducting drills has a lasting impact. Jackson’s daughter is on the autism spectrum. Before August, she was never worried about a bedroom intruder. “She’s never been afraid of monsters; she’s never been afraid of the dark,” said Jackson. Afterward, that changed.

Between the Uvalde shooting and the regularity of drills, Giampaolo said, he and many of his peers feel uneasy in school this year. “We literally just want to go to school and not worry about being shot,” he said.

Kelly said she understands the necessity of school shooter preparedness, but it’s been difficult for her son.

“I don’t even know what the answer is, and I think that’s where I feel so powerless in this fight,” she said. “The kids are taking the brunt of bad decisions.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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