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By Elizabeth Chuck
The 4-year-old son of Heidi Lee Pottinger was at a football game last fall with his father when, after a touchdown, celebratory fireworks exploded. Panicked, the little boy turned to his father.
"Active shooter!" He cried with tears in his eyes.
Pottinger's son is one of the millions of American schoolchildren who participated in shooting and lockdown exercises. The exercises, inherited from the unleashed Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, are intended to prepare teachers and students for the rare threat that an armed man will open fire in their school.
Pottinger's son started doing the exercises in his private nursery, whereas he was only three years old. During the exercises, the young boy from Tuscon, Arizona – whom Pottinger had asked NBC News not to name to protect his privacy – squatted gently with classmates and teachers behind the furniture, repeating what to do if a real shooter burst.
The exercises have deeply affected him. At home, he bit his fingernails and pretended to be locked while he was playing. Eventually he refused to go anywhere alone, even to his room or bathroom at home.
"It would say," The confinement is going to catch me, "said Pottinger, a researcher in maternal and child health at the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. really caught off guard … It's his childhood and it should be careless, and it is not.
Active shooter drills became more common, with the massacre of schools with firearms making headlines. The exercises give teachers and students a plan to follow in an emergency, which can save lives. According to the US Nonprofit Education Commission, forty-two states have laws requiring emergency drills or safety in schools, many of which are designed to protect themselves from active shooters. .
However, there is virtually no research on the effectiveness of exercises, and although there are some federal recommendations, there is no blueprint for schools to follow in how to achieve them. their frequency and how to explain them to students of different ages.
Over the last two decades, the exercises have grown, with some schools even using fake blood and blank cartridges against students. An exercise at an Indiana school last month sparked outrage when teachers were shot at the pellet, injuring them.
At the same time, students' worries have increased. Some are not aware that blockages are just exercises, prompting them to send their parents what they believe to be last farewells in text form, or to faint or vomit. Others are afraid to go to school in the days following the exercises.
As a result, an increasing number of schools are experimenting with ways to reduce the cost of exercises while making every effort to ensure student safety. For some school districts, this means using language appropriate to their age; for others, this involves having guidance counselors or school psychologists available during and after the exercises.
However, even relatively tame sniper drills with many warnings can traumatize students, stress the critics, asking whether schools should practice them or not.
"Children are much more likely to be assaulted by a parent than to be shot and injured at school, to be victims of a car accident or to have a car accident. a teacher. We do not practice that. "
"Children are much more likely to be assaulted by a parent than to be shot and injured at school, to be victims of a car accident or to have a car accident. a teacher. We do not practice this, "said Joy Levinson, a New York-based clinical psychologist, who had elementary-aged clients telling her to wet their pants in class because the drills made them afraid to go to the gym. bath.
"It makes sure the school does not feel safe, like a place where we can not learn," she said. "That's why schools are."
Borrow police and prison jargon for schools
Virtually all US public schools teach students some forms of emergency preparedness, ranging from fire and tornado drills to mock lockdowns.
While the exercises date back several decades – the 1950s students plunged under their desk during "duck and blanket" nuclear bomb exercises – it's only been 20 years since the "active shooter" and "confinement" have entered the educational lexicon.
The term "active shooter", which was originally a recreational hunting term, was incorporated into the law enforcement vocabulary after Columbine. The general public, including schools, began using the term several years later, according to criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University. At first, the schools simply called the exercises "Columbine exercises," he said.
The "locking" exercises, borrowed from jargon in the prison, were later regularly used to refer to a repetition of anything that could force students and teachers to stay in a classroom with locked doors, closed windows, lights off and blinds activity of the police, a natural disaster or an active shooter.
No matter what they are called, the goal of the exercises is clear: to protect students and teachers.
Fox argues that there is no way to prove that active shooter drills work because it would be impossible to conduct such an experiment. But some who have been confronted with gun violence are certain that the exercises have saved lives.
When an armed man rushed to a school yard filled with children at Rancho Tehama Elementary in Corning, California, in November 2017, staff immediately brought the students to l & # 39; inside. They implemented locking procedures that they had repeated when the shooter fired at the building.
A student was shot in the chest and foot and survived. But no one has been hurt – what Corning Union Elementary School District Superintendent Richard Fitzpatrick attributes to the staff, who he says has "impeccably" locked the door. 39 school after years of practice.
Many parents also support the exercises, saying that it is necessary for children to understand the dangers they may face.
Sarah Caron, whose son survived the shooting of the Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, told Today.com last year: "I think it's important to have a plan, even he's finally deviated. "
Do the exercises do more harm than good?
Nevertheless, reactions to active shooter exercises increased, while children were criticized for being particularly traumatic, as it is difficult to protect them from press coverage of mass shootings in the country.
"The tragedies occur not only in public schools, but also in street cinemas, in a disco," said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, which represents more than 3 million teachers and professionals assisting with education.
"When they know what has happened from Columbine to Parkland and that crazy people have gone through schools," she explains, "it's something that reminds them," I could be killed every time I go to school ", even if there is one". (Last year, the Washington Post estimated that the risk that a student from a public school was shot dead since 1999 was about 1 in 614 million.)
The lack of rules for exercises also caused problems.
Some schools do not notify teachers and students in the preceding days, based on state laws that require exercises to be conducted without notice. Once the exercise begins, administrators can announce via the speaker that it is an exercise. Or they might not do it: when two Wisconsin schools organized a "Red Code," exercises in October 2018 without telling teachers and students that they were just exercises, parents enrages wrote a letter to the school district accusing him of "creating a false impression of trauma among staff and students in order to" give a real appearance "or for people to" take it seriously ". (A bill introduced earlier this month would give Wisconsin school administrators the opportunity to warn students in advance.)
Some fear that too much emphasis on active shooter exercises will be to the detriment of preparing for more likely situations that schools may face, such as a non-custodial parent trying to have a child sign up. School, a student who suffocates or an extreme weather event.
"What people should be doing is duties," said Michael Dorn, executive director of safe school security consulting firm Safe Havens International. "What we suggest to people is that you have a wide range of protective actions, locks, reverse evacuations, a practice of going back into the building when the danger is outside."
He has discouraged simulating real shots, which may seem very different from reality compared to simulation.
"It can have the opposite effect of what you want," Dorn said. "Not only will you induce trauma, but people will be less able to survive if they encounter the real threat."
"Do not be scared, get ready": reduce anxiety
Some educators and school safety experts are experimenting with ways to minimize student stress.
At the Liberty Central School District, in Liberty, NY, the district's motto for the exercises is "Do not be scared, get ready." Teachers inform more than 1,800 district students in advance, providing them with a general schedule for when to expect them. They examine their purpose, as well as the procedures, said school director Augustine Tornatore.
"These are difficult conversations to have, but it is important for elementary students to know that if something bad happens, they have the means to manage it," he said.
But the district recognizes that some children will remain anxious during the exercises, said Tornatore. School guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists then follow up with students. There is also sensory support and professional support in classrooms for students with special needs during the exercises, such as giving to a student who has a tendency to feel pressured to press.
In the 6,800-student Oak Creek-Franklin School District, located south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, teachers adapt the exercises to the youngest students, calling them "buddies room exercises," so that they can be heard. they seem less scary. The term is used to practice anything that needs to be done quickly, for example from one classroom to another or inside the playground, said Deputy Superintendent of Operations Daniel Unertl.
According to some experts in school safety, another option is to leave students completely excluded from active fire drills.
"There is no evidence of their effectiveness, and if the reality happens, when adrenaline rises, all the lessons learned can be forgotten."
Fox, the criminologist from the Northeast, does not see how students benefit, saying that teachers can learn to practice these events from local police departments without traumatizing students.
"There is no evidence that they work, and if the reality happens, when the adrenaline rises, all the lessons learned can be forgotten," he said.
"That does not mean you should not do anything, it would be just as effective to tell kids what's happening in the case of an active shooter," he added, just like the safety videos on planes do not involve passengers. repeat an evacuation.
Pottinger, the mother of Arizona, said that talking to her son's fears and giving him coping strategies (including telling him to envision an imaginary cloud guarding him) helped him avoid to be so nervous. She transferred her son to a nursery school closer to home, but does not blame her previous school, which she said was doing what administrators thought was in the best interests of the children.
Nevertheless, she said, seeing the effect of the exercises on her son was "really worrying".
"I understand that these protocols are unfortunately becoming more normal and necessary," she said, "but I think there are other strategies that can be implemented."