Active Shooter Drills and Terrorizing Children

As a kid, I loved days when we had fire and tornado drills. It was something that broke up the monotony of day. There was nothing like scurrying down to the cafeteria and huddling by the floor with your best friends, “preparing” for a hypothetical tornado but really talking about what you had for lunch and what your were doing over the weekend. Oh yea, and if there was ever an actual tornado, stay away from the window and cover your neck. OK–got it.

Tornado and fire drills are probably a good idea. Though both are fairly rare occurrences, teaching children, and adults for that matter, to be prepared for tornadoes and fires should probably be considered a best practice.

But not all drills invoked such feelings during my school years. By the time I got to middle school, we hosted “active shooter drills.” These drills taught us the following. In the event someone comes into the school with a gun and the intent to kill everyone, turn off the lights and huddle in the corner of the room. Assuming the assailant has really poor vision and can’t see through the glass door, you’ll be safe. (The unspoken lesson went like this. If the shooter isn’t blind and can see through the door, pray that you’re in the middle of the huddle and not on the border.) As opposed to making me feel safe, these drills placed a kernel of worry in the back of my mind. Would today be the day that someone comes to the school with a gun?

I was in junior high when 9/11 changed the American psychological landscape. I remember going home and seeing the coverage on every news channel, including Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. After that, we had to have drills every so often about what to do in the event of a terror attack. (I honestly cannot remember what the drills entailed.)

Certainly, we weren’t the first generation subjected to such activities. I distinctly remember my mother telling me about doing drills for air raids and nuclear attacks as a child. In case the Russians decided to start WWIII, the students were to get under their desks and cover their heads. Nothing protects you from nuclear fallout like compressed wood pulp and laminate.

When discussing these drills, many equate them to a fire or tornado drill. It’s better for children to be prepared than dead. By preparing children for the worst, it’s argued, schools can save lives. In response to shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in which an armed intruder killed 27 people, including many children, many lawmakers have called to make such drills mandatory. In 2013, for example, the governor of Tennessee signed an order requiring schools to stage such drills and pushed up the deadline for when schools had to conduct these exercises. In Virginia, lawmakers added two lockdown drills to the school calendar. In Washington state, schools must also have lockdown drills.

When looking at such policies, however, it’s important to ask if these mandates achieve their desired goals.

Consider that there is no evidence that such drills actually save lives. Because things like mass shootings and terror attacks are so incredibly rare, systematic data is impossible to come by. It’s interesting to note that at Sandy Hook Elementary was considered to have had one of the best campus security systems prior to the attack. In addition, the school had just undergone an active shooter drill just several weeks before the attack.

The fact of the matter is, kids are much safer in school than out of school. Children are 100 times more likely to by murdered outside of school than in school. The chances of a school shooting taking place in an elementary or middle school in a given year is about 1 in 141,000. To offer some perspective, the chances of a child developing cancer is 1 in 330. Children are much more likely to be killed in car accidents. Also consider that a young person between the ages of 10 and 24 commits suicide nearly every two hours. Yes, children are more likely to kill themselves than be killed by a school shooter.

Given these statistics, it isn’t clear that having these drills will do much other than freak out a bunch of kids. If our goal is to protect our children, active shooter drills may do more harm than good.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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