Texas revamps ‘active fire’ drills to minimize trauma

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

In August, the daughter of Mary Jackson, a kindergarten student in Leander, asked her mother to put a “special lock” on her bedroom door to “keep the wrong adults out” following a a separate lockdown exercise.

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

READ MORE: Boerne ISD targets school safety and mental health after Uvalde

like the nation reassess its gun laws, violent threat training has become a gruesome but commonplace reality in K-12 schools. More than 40 states require schools to prepare students to respond when a campus is attacked. Almost all American students experience at least one or more of these exercises a year, although their effectiveness has been hotly debated by state lawmakers, school personnel, safety experts and parents.

About 98% of public schools taught students about containment procedures before the pandemic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The reasons are clear: the 2020-2021 school year saw 93 school shootings resulting in casualties, the highest number in two decades, according to NCES. While school shootings are rare, they have devastating consequences.

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

According a study published in December in the journal Nature who reviewed social media posts.

The drills, especially those involving simulations, increased students’ fear of the possibility of a shooting and made them feel unsafe at school. The more realistic the exercise, the more fear it provoked. Students like Giampaolo who have special needs and those who have already suffered trauma are among the most affected, according to security experts.

At least one state is taking a step toward balancing school safety and student health.

In order to minimize trauma for participants, new texas regulations require schools to ensure exercises do not simulate shootings – a change that comes just a semester after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde.

“If some kids come out traumatized or if we’re amplifying existing trauma, we’re not moving in the right direction,” said Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, an advocacy group that has backed the bill.

Texas requires schools to conduct two lockdown drills per year. But there was confusion and sweeping interpretations about how they should be conducted, said state Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, a Democrat who sponsored the bill passed in the 2021 legislative session.

Despite a growing body of research on how to prepare for worst-case scenarios, not all schools follow best practices and there’s no way to tell which ones are, said Jaclyn Schildkrautassociate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York-Oswego, who advocated for the exercises.

“We don’t have a national standard, no national guidelines, and no tracking system,” Schildkraut said.

In extreme cases, schools simulate shootings, with officers brandishing weapons or imitating gunfire, which she says is unnecessarily traumatic for students and staff. “We don’t set schools on fire to practice a fire drill,” Schildkraut said.

Texas rules now make a clearer distinction between lockdown drills, which are mandatory, and active threat drills, which are voluntary and may involve recreating aspects of a shootout.

A drill does not involve fake wounds or shots. Instead, students talk about what to do or do activities like turning off lights, locking doors, and staying quiet and away from windows.

Active threat drills, intended to train first responders, may involve realistic depictions of injured students or loud sounds. They give officials from different jurisdictions the ability to plan a coordinated response, said Kathy Martinez Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center. But schools need to plan these simulations carefully without requiring student participation, she said.

The new regulations require schools to adapt drills and drills to the age and development of students, but focus on creating guardrails for active threat drills. Students are not prohibited from participating in drills, a gun safety movement, and wanted parent groups. But the rules advise schools to conduct them during a time when students are not on campus. They also require that everyone involved be informed well in advance of an exercise and that a public announcement be made immediately before, so that no participant confuses a simulation with a live shooter.

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

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

The measure is a sign of incremental progress, but it’s not comprehensive, said Blair Taylor, an attorney with 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.

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

The Texas American Federation of Teachers creates posters to make sure teachers know about the new rules, so they can file complaints with school districts. But Texas regulations do not specify punitive measures if districts do not comply.

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

Once a semester, students must hunker down silently in a corner while first responders roam the halls and “give” the classroom doorknobs, he said. The officers then shout: “Police, open up”. Students with special needs are not exempt from these lockdown drills, he said, but officers are trying to check classrooms with those students first so they can quickly resume classes.

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

But even the shaking doorknobs might feel too much like a simulation for many students, especially those who are younger or have been through a shooting, some experts say.

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

“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 school districts should do to 16 per school year, but many argue that lockdown drills don’t need to be done frequently.

“When you start doing these drills monthly, which some school districts require, it starts to suggest they’re relatively likely,” he said. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “It’s a bad perception for children.”

Many students say the way Texas schools currently organize drills is having a lasting impact.

Jackson’s daughter is on the autism spectrum. Before August, she never worried about an intruder in her room. “She was never afraid of monsters; she was never afraid of the dark,” Jackson said. After that, that changed.

Between the Uvalde shooting and the regularity of the drills, Giampaolo said, he and many of his classmates are feeling uncomfortable at school this year. “We literally just want to go to school and not worry about being shot,” he said.

Kelly said she understood the need to prepare for school shooters, 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 helpless in this fight,” she said. “Children take the brunt of bad decisions.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

Comments are closed.