Scaring Students For Their Own Good

“I thought he was going to shoot me.”

That’s the text message that a mother received from her terrified child at Jewett Middle Academy in Winter Haven, Florida. But the child wasn’t describing a psychotic school shooter. It was a drill. As the local CBS affiliate reported:

Students at Jewett Middle Academy said they were terrified when police officers burst in the doors for a planned active shooter drill – but students and teachers are irked they were not told ahead of time.

Seventh-grader Lauren Marionneaux told WTVT-TV that when the officers burst into her class with an AR-15, she was in fear for her life.

“We actually thought that someone was going to come in there and kill us,” the station quoted her as saying.

In the wake angry protests from parents, students, and teachers, school officials explained that the secrecy surrounding the drill was necessary for the students’ safety:

“Unfortunately, no one gets an advanced notice of real life emergencies,” Polk County Public Schools spokesman Jason Gearey said in an e-mailed statement to The Washington Post. “We don’t want students to be scared, but we need them to be safe.”

They don’t want students to be scared, but unannounced active shooter drill is guaranteed to scare kids. Moreover, as Lenore Skenazy points out, such drills could actually put people in danger:

Of course, the authorities neglected to notice that no one sets the school on fire to create more realistic fire drills. Nor do they drag in giant wind machines to replicate the feel of an impending tornado.

The fear that teachers might suffer heart attacks, that kids might experience psychotic breakdowns, that someone with his own weapon might shoot real bullets in defense—none of that seemed to occur to our peacekeepers. Nor did the notion that distraught parents might race frantically to the school, endangering anyone in their path.

No, these cops were so focused on the most horrific, least likely crime that nothing else mattered.

School shootings are every parent’s worst nightmare, but fortunately they are exceedingly rare. As I explained back in September, fewer than one in 10,000 schools have had a shooting in the last two years, and fewer than one out of every 2,273,000 students per year are killed at school including all types of violence, not just shootings. By contrast, according to National Geographic, the odds of being hit by lightning in a given year is one out of 700,000.

Some experts have also questioned the efficacy of unannounced active shooter drills. In the Wall Street Journal, a former SWAT officer who conducts seminars to teach civilians how to deal with mass-shooting scenarios panned the idea: “There ends up being zero learning going on because everyone is upset that you’ve scared the crap out of them.” The Journal also reported several other instances of drills gone awry. In one drill at a nursing home, a police officer posing as an armed intruder forced a nurse into an empty room at gunpoint where “she tearfully begged for her life.” She was so traumatized that she quit her job. Other drills also left civilians traumatized or even physically injured:

The confusion that sometimes ensues during drills also can have unintended consequences. In March, a teacher in Boardman, Ohio, filed a lawsuit against local police and school officials, claiming he was unexpectedly tackled by a police officer during a drill at a high school, seriously injuring his hip and shoulder.

Jesse McClain, 60 years old, had volunteered to participate and was playing the role of a “panicked parent” when the officer tackled him without warning, his lawyer, John O’Neil, said. Boardman Township’s police chief and the superintendent of the town’s school district declined to comment on the incident, citing the lawsuit.

In Florida, a woman filed a complaint in March with state officials on behalf of her sister, a Fort Walton Beach nurse, over a drill at an Okaloosa County Health Department office. According to the complaint, employees weren’t informed about the drill, which involved a police officer firing blanks, and many were “hysterical, crying and shouting.”

As with fires and other hazards, it is important for schools to be prepared for an emergency. But policymakers must keep things in perspective. Keeping kids safe does not require terrifying them.