Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 16, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 16, 2019 -- On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, Natalie Barden was in science class getting ready to take a test. When her school -- Reed Intermediate in Newtown, CT -- went on lockdown, she and her classmates thought it was a drill. "We were making light of it, practicing for the test," she says.

Hours later, on the ride home, she saw helicopters circling overhead and camera crews videotaping her and the other students through the bus windows. When she finally arrived home, she learned the news about her 7-year-old brother, Daniel, a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School. "My parents told me that Daniel hadn't made it out."

Nearly 7 years later, the loss of her brother and 19 of his classmates still weighs heavily on her mind. "If I turn my head any way, there's always something that's a reminder," she says. At 17, the anxiety also stays with her. "I always feel afraid if I'm home alone, or out at night, or in a place that's unfamiliar, or if I'm in a movie theater and I feel trapped."

Since Sandy Hook, there have been more than 2,184 mass shootings (generally defined as shootings where four or more people are injured or killed) in America. As of Aug. 5, 2019, the United States had had 255 mass shootings and 22 school shootings for the year.

Statistically speaking, the odds of being killed in a school shooting are extremely low -- about 1 in 2 million. Yet experts say the constant images showing the aftermath of these violent events on TV and social media, coupled with regular school lockdown drills to prepare for them, has left America's children anxious.

"There's always a little fear," says Elsa, a senior at a small New England private school. "There isn't a single classroom where I haven't looked around and thought, 'What would I do if somebody was in the building, trying to shoot us?'"

It’s been 20 years since two teenagers killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado, and in that time, "a generation of students has grown up with this as a possibility," says Cathy Kennedy-Paine, a school psychologist and crisis response team lead for the National Association of School Psychologists. "They also understand the reality because it has happened so often."

Kennedy-Paine was the crisis team lead for Springfield Public Schools in Oregon in 1998, when 15-year-old Kip Kinkel sprayed 50 rounds of ammunition into a cafeteria full of students at Thurston High School. Two students died, and 25 were injured.

Fears of School Shootings

School shootings rank as the second most common worry among children ages 6 to 17, according to a 2018 survey by the Children's Defense Fund, a nonprofit child advocacy group. A Pew Research survey finds that most teens worry that a shooting at their school is possible.

"So many kids have said to me, 'It's not if, it's when,'" says Nancy Kislin, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Chatham, NJ, and the author of Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence. "To me, that equals a pervasive sense of feeling hopeless."

School tragedies aren't a recent development. In July 1764, 10 Pennsylvania students and their teacher died in the very first school massacre. But after Columbine in 1999, school violence incidents increased, with tragedies like Sandy Hook Elementary, Santa Fe High School, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School becoming all too frequent. More people died or were injured in mass school shootings during the first 18 years of the 21st century than in the entire 20th century.

Lockdowns and Drills

Schools that are under a real attack or the threat of violence go on lockdown, an emergency procedure in which students and teachers lock doors, draw shades, and put other security procedures in place. During the 2017-2018 school year, there were 6,200 lockdowns involving more than 4 million students, according to a report by The Washington Post. On any given day that year, 16 campuses were locked down, nine of them due to gun violence or the threat of it.

During these events, shaken children have written terrified texts to loved ones. When Jim Bailey Middle School in Pensacola, FL, went on lockdown in February 2018 after a false report of a gun on campus, Casey Burt's daughter, a sixth-grader, sent her a text begging, "Mom he's in the hallway, please hurry." Amy Burgett’s grandson texted, "Please check me out before I [die]."

To protect students in the event of an actual school shooting, schools hold lockdown or active shooter drills, where children learn to barricade themselves inside classrooms or crouch atop toilet seats to help them survive. Most American schools have lockdown procedures in place or actively practice lockdown drills, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

These drills are an essential part of keeping kids safe in the current epidemic of school violence. "It's really important to have lockdown drills, because you're building muscle memory. When a shooting happens, your mind goes blank, and fight-or-flight kicks in. If you don't have the right tools, you're basically a chicken with its head cut off," says Jaclyn Schildkraut, PhD, an associate professor of criminal justice at State University of New York, Oswego.

Although research on how well these drills work is scarce, real-life experiences show they do work. Schildkraut says Sandy Hook was a model for their value. The school had practiced a drill just a week before the shooting. "Had they not had the training they did have, it probably would have been a lot worse," she says.

Schildkraut is helping New York’s Syracuse City School District come up with lockdown drills and see how well they work. After training sessions, she's seen real improvements in student responses. "Across the board, the drills made them feel more prepared. It made them have greater trust that their teachers knew how to take care of them if something happened," she says.

Risky Drills

When done right, lockdown drills let kids practice skills that could save their lives. "They can actually make kids feel a little safer and more in control, and have a sense of competence that they know how to handle a potentially harmful situation," says Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist with the Direct Trauma and Resilience Program at the Child Mind Institute.

But when done wrong, these practice runs can cause real emotional harm.

With no standards to serve as guidelines, school districts use a wide variety of methods to do active shooter drills. The most basic drills teach kids to lock the classroom door, hide, and stay quiet. Options-based drills arm kids with more strategies depending on their situation: run, lock down in a secure room, and sometimes fight back.

The safest place for any student to be during a mass shooting is behind a locked door, Schildkraut says. "Mass shootings are over in 5 minutes or less, and that locked door is a time buyer."

She says some for-profit companies teach kids to fight back -- for example, by grabbing the barrel of the shooter's gun. "The reality is, kids aren't James Shaw Jr. at Waffle House," she says, referring to the man who, in 2018 in Nashville, disarmed a shooter who had already killed four people in a crowded restaurant. "You don't want to tell somebody who has no tactical training, no law enforcement background, and no weapon to grab a gun."

Some well-meaning schools don't give students enough tools to know how to react during a real active shooter incident. Two years ago, Elsa's school went on lockdown. It turned out to be a false alarm, but at the time, students had no idea whether the threat was real.

"I was in a chemistry class -- one of the labs. The whole hallway is glass walls," she recalls. She and her classmates went into a side room, locked the door, and covered the glass with posters as they'd been trained to do, but some of her friends were locked out and trapped in hallways. Because they hadn't been taught how to respond in that situation, those students were forced to hide wherever they could -- in glass-lined lecture halls, crouching behind couches. Meanwhile, minutes went by without any communication from the school to the frightened students and teachers who were sheltering in place.

"The lockdown scare was really eye opening, because it showed me how many flaws there were in the lockdown system," Elsa says.

"The trauma of that day was almost as bad as if there was a threat," adds her mother, Justine. "Information is what makes you relax. And if you don't have good information, you get more stressed."

Too Real

Also counterproductive are the highly realistic drills some schools do to prepare kids for a surprise attack, which have featured air guns, fake bullet holes, and crisis actors covered in blood.

During an active shooter drill at Bethel Park High School in Pennsylvania last year, police fired blanks to simulate the sound of gunfire. School district spokeswoman Vicki Flotta said in a statement that the gunfire was meant to help students get used to the sound. In that instance, students and teachers were informed ahead of time.

But staff and students at Raisin City Elementary School in California had no advance warning when they saw a masked man with a gun. One teacher grabbed a fire extinguisher, ready to strike the man, who turned out to be the school's janitor acting the role of a shooter. Raisin City School Superintendent Juan Sandoval later acknowledged he should have warned staff ahead of time, but he defended the drill as a good "learning experience."

Experts say these tactics go too far. "We don't start a fire to have a fire drill," says Melissa Brymer, PsyD, PhD, director of the Terrorism and Disaster Program at the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. "We're at a place where fire drills are not scary for those who participate. That's where we need to go with this situation."

Protecting Students

To avoid frightening kids, schools can explain what a drill will involve before doing it, Kennedy-Paine says. Drills need to be age-appropriate, and schools should always warn students and staff they're coming, especially if they plan to use props like fake guns. "These could be very traumatizing if people thought they were real," she says. Students with special developmental needs should get extra preparation or have the right to opt out of drills.

During a lockdown or drill, schools need to tell students and teachers what's going on, Kennedy-Paine says. Afterward, a school counselor, psychologist, and other staff should talk to students and address any concerns they have. Administrators should check in to see what went right and what areas could use some improvement.

Nothing can remove the fear from school shootings and lockdowns, but the goal is to make these drills as routine and calm as fire drills are today. "They're generally not anxiety-producing," Kennedy-Paine says. "The fire alarm goes off, kids get up and march outside."

What Parents Can Do

School shootings can be hard to talk about, especially with younger children. Danielle Johnson, who also lives in Newtown, says she learned about the shootings in her town from watching the news. She isn’t sure whether her parents were shielding her from the knowledge, or unsure of how to talk about it. “I think my parents should have talked to me about it, but in that situation, I don’t know how I would talk to my child about that,” says the now 16-year-old high school senior.

Knowledge is a parent's greatest ally in helping a child deal with fears about school shootings and lockdown drills. Ask your kids what they've seen and heard, suggests Robin Gurwitch, PhD, a psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center. "That goes a long way to reducing anxiety and fear."

After a shooting, watch for signs that your child has been emotionally affected. Look for changes in mood, withdrawal from school and friends, avoidance of activities, and trouble sleeping. "It's very common for children after there's been any kind of traumatic event to have these kinds of reactions," Gurwitch says. If you see these signs, get help from a children’s mental health professional.

It's natural to worry about your children’s safety, but be careful not to express those fears in front of them. Kids are good at picking up cues, Howard says. "Even if we aren't feeling calm, we at least want to model it." She recommends talking to your kids in a matter-of-fact way about the types of safety procedures their school has in place.

Also talk to the school. Find out who works the front desk and how people get in and out of the building.

Ask about their lockdown drill procedures. Notify the school ahead of time if your child is especially anxious about lockdown drills. And after a drill, have a follow-up conversation with your child. "Find out how they perceived it," Kennedy-Paine says.

It's impossible to shield your children from every risk, especially in today's climate. "It's a really frightening time," Justine says. "Statistically, it's highly unlikely they're going to be involved in a school shooting. But that doesn't mean you don't take drills and warnings seriously."

One way that students like Barden and Johnson have dealt with the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary is to become activists. They serve as co-chairs of the Junior Newtown Action Alliance, which supports communities impacted by gun violence and raises awareness about gun violence prevention. "That's the only thing I can do," Barden says. "I don't know if I can be hopeful enough to think that the next generation will be safer. I just want kids to feel that they're not in danger."

Show Sources

American Counseling Association: "School Shootings and Student Mental Health: Role of the School Counselor in Mitigating Violence."

Natalie Barden, 17, student, Newtown, CT.

Melissa Brymer, PsyD, PhD, director, Terrorism and Disaster Program, UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

CBS News: "There have been more mass shootings than days this year."

Children's Defense Fund: "School Shootings Spark Everyday Worries."

Elsa, student at a New England private school.

Government Accountability Office: "Emergency Management: Improved Federal Coordination Could Better Assist K-12 Schools Prepare for Emergencies."

Robin Gurwitch, PhD, psychologist; professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center.

Jamie Howard, PhD, clinical psychologist, Direct Trauma and Resilience Program, Child Mind Institute.

Danielle Johnson, 16, Newtown High School senior.

Journal of Child and Family Studies: "Rapid rise in mass school shootings in the United States, study shows."

Justine, Elsa's mother.

Kaiser Health News: "During 2017-18, An American Student's Likelihood of Dying In A School Shooting was One in 2 Million."

Cathy Kennedy-Paine, school psychologist; crisis response team lead, National Association of School Psychologists.

Nancy Kislin, licensed clinical social worker, therapist, Chatham, NJ.

National Association of School Psychologists: "Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills."

PBS: "111 Years Without Parole."

Pensacola News Journal: "'Please check me out before I die:' Bailey students send heartbreaking texts during lockdown."

Pew Research Center: "A majority of U.S. teens fear a shooting could happen at their school, and most parents share their concern."

Rand Corporation: "Mass Shootings: Definitions and Trends."

Jaclyn Schildkraut, PhD, associate professor of criminal justice, State University of New York, Oswego.

The Almanac: "Blanks used as part of active shooter drill at Bethel Park High School."

The Washington Post: "What if someone was shooting?"

Ursano, Robert J. Textbook of Disaster Psychiatry.

VOX: "After Sandy Hook we said never again."

WCTI12: "Superintendent issued a reprimand for active shooter drill involving masked janitor."

WPXI: "Blanks to Be Fired During Active Shooter Drill at Local School."

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