Texas revamps ‘active-shooter’ drills in K-12 schools to reduce trauma

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

In August, Mary Jackson’s daughter, a kindergartner in Leander, asked her mother 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 practice 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 grim yet common reality in K-12 schools. Schools in more than 40 states must prepare to respond to students if a campus is attacked. Almost every student in America experiences at least one or more drills a year, though their effectiveness has been debated among state lawmakers, school officials, safety experts and parents.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 98% of public schools taught students lockdown procedures before the pandemic. Their reasons are clear: There were 93 school shootings in the 2020-21 school year, the highest number in two decades, according to NCES. Although school shootings are rare, they have devastating consequences

But preparing for these events can also come with a price. “Just the literal trauma caused by them is horrific,” Giampaolo said.

Anxiety, stress and depression among K-12 students increased 39%-42% after lockdown drills, according to a study published in December in the journal Nature that examined social media posts. Drills, especially those involving simulations, increase students’ fear of the possibility of a shooting and make them feel unsafe at school. The more realistic the drills, the more fear they provoked. According to safety experts, students like Giampaolo who have special needs and who have experienced prior trauma are the most vulnerable.

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 do not simulate gunfire β€” a change that comes just one semester after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde.

“If some kids are walking away traumatized or we’re exacerbating existing trauma, then 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 handled, 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 on how to prepare for worst-case scenarios, not all schools are following the best practices and there’s no way to tell which ones are, said Jacqueline Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York-Oswego, who has advocated for the drill.

“We have no national standards, no national guidelines and no tracking system,” Schildkraut said.

In extreme cases, schools simulate shootings, with officers displaying weapons or simulating gunshots, which he said are unnecessarily traumatic for both students and staff. “We don’t set the school on fire to practice a fire drill,” Schildkraut said.

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

A drill does not involve hitting nets or gunshots. Instead, students either talk about what to do, or practice activities such as turning off lights, locking doors, and being quiet and away from windows.

Active-threat exercises, intended to train first responders, may involve realistic images of injured students or loud sounds. They allow officials from multiple jurisdictions to plan a coordinated response, said Cathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center. But schools need to carefully plan those simulations without requiring student participation, he said.

The new regulations require schools to tailor drills and exercises to the age and development of students, but they focus on creating guidelines for active threat practice. Students are not banned from participating in the drills, a move some gun safety and parent groups wanted. But the rules suggest that schools operate at times when students are not on campus. They also require that everyone involved be given adequate notice before the exercise and that a public announcement be made immediately before, so that no participant confuses a simulation with an actual shooter.

The measure, which directs school districts to find ways to reduce potential trauma to students and staff, such as consulting with mental health professionals when planning drills, was in effect the previous school year. But the Texas Education Agency did not finalize the rules until this year.

The clarifications come as schools renew their focus on safety “Especially with everything coming from Uvalde, this law is more important than ever,” Ordaz Perez said.

The measure is a sign of growing progress, but it’s not sweeping, said Blair Taylor, an advocate at Texas Moms Demand Action, a nonprofit focused on ending gun violence. He wants the Texas legislature to do more to prevent school shootings.

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

The Texas American Federation of Teachers is creating posters to let teachers know about the new rules, so they can file complaints with school districts. But the Texas regulations do not specify disciplinary measures if districts fail to comply.

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

Once a semester, students are instructed to quietly hide in a corner while first responders pass through the hallway and “gently jingle” classroom doorknobs, he said. The officers then shouted, “Police, open up.” Students with special needs are not exempt from these lockdown drills, he said, but officers try to test classrooms with those students first so they can quickly resume classes.

After the drill, students, faculty and first responders gather in the cafeteria for a debrief.

But even moving doorknobs can be too much of a simulation for many students, especially those who are younger or have prior shooting experience, some experts say.

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

“When they go to school the anxiety starts to sit with them regularly,” she said.

Texas limits the number of all types of drills that school districts must perform to 16 per school year, but many argue that lockdown drills do not need to be conducted as often.

“When you start doing these drills every month, which some school districts require, it starts to suggest that they’re relatively unlikely,” said David Schoenfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “It’s a bad idea for kids.”

Many students say the way Texas schools currently conduct drills has lasting effects. Jackson’s daughter is on the autism spectrum. Before August, she had never worried about an intruder in the bedroom. β€œHe was never afraid of monsters; He’s never afraid of the dark,” says Jackson. Later, that changed.

Between the Uvalde shooting and the regularity of practice, Giampaolo said, he and his teammates felt uncomfortable at school this year. “We literally want to go to school and not worry about getting shot,” he said.

Kelly said she understands the need for school shooter preparation, but it was 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. “Kids are victims of bad decisions.”

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