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Active shooter drills have become a fact of life for America’s school children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a policy statement on them.
Preparing for an emergency in school was not an unusual experience for most people. Drills to prepare for fires and tornadoes have been run for decades and many older people can remember the “duck and cover” drills to prepare for a nuclear attack. In the past 20 years, another drill has been added: the active shooter drill, as a result of the many mass shootings that have taken place in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy statement on these drills.1
Many children and teenagers participate in active shooter drills. Some of these drills may be of an abstract nature that is similar to other drill runs. However, schools may run high-intensity active shooter drills that could include real weapons, gunfire, theatrical makeup of realistic blood or gunshots, predatory behavior from the person acting as the shooter, and other elements. Such drills may help children and teenagers act as needed in the case of an actual emergency, but they can also pose psychological risks, particularly if the children are led to believe that the drill is an actual active shooting event.
The policy had 11 recommendations for active shooting drills:
1. Only involve children in drills when the involvement will directly benefit them or other children. Children shouldn’t be involved when it will only benefit adults. If adult responders need to practice their roles, alternative such as other adults acting as children should be used or run in the off-hours of the school. Teenagers who express a personal desire to participate in the drill are the only pediatric group who should be allowed to participate in high-intensity drills.
2. Active consent to participate in high-intensity drills should be obtained from voluntary adolescent participants as well as their legal guardians. Passive consent procedures should not be used.
3. Adults involved with the drill should keep an eye out for psychological distress. They should monitor the reactions of the pediatric participants and they should explicitly tell the participants that they may take a break from the drill for any reason. Supportive services should be offered as needed.
4. Parents, students, and school staff should be given notice of the drill and deception should not be used.
5. Put the emphasis on teaching skills instead of accurately stimulating crisis events. The drills should be designed with learning objectives for both adults and any children who participate and should teach specific behaviors, instead of just showing the seriousness of a crisis event. Participants should provide feedback after a drill to discover any gaps in knowledge or skills.
6. Ensure that there are accommodations for the unique vulnerabilities of children.
7. Utilize student input. Students may be able to voice risks or vulnerabilities that adults may not know.
8. Take a multidisciplinary approach to exercise and drill planning.
9. Put the emphasis on preventing violence. This could include early identification of behavioral health concerns, social-emotional learning, and training.
10. Do legislative advocacy.
11. Perform research on the impact of exercises and drills.
1. Schonfeld D, Melzer-Lange M, Hashikawa A, Gorski P. Participation of children and adolescents in live crisis drills and exercises. Pediatrics. August 24, 2020. Epub ahead of print. doi:10.1542/peds.2020-015503