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Examining the counter effects school lockdown drills may have in the long run

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Video taken during last week's shooting at a high school in Oxford, Mich., showed students in a classroom refusing to open a door to the attacker. Those students had undergone lockdown drills in school. They knew what to do, and they survived. The video would seem to make a case for lockdown drills, which are just about universal in this country, but the practice has many skeptics. One of them is Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.

What is the normal training, if there is a normal, for students across this country when it comes to preparations for an active shooter?

DAVID SCHONFELD: Well, we know that most states do require drills related to active shooter situations in schools across the United States. How those are being done varies a great deal by individual school and community. So you first want to start by discussing it and letting kids know what they're supposed to do. The next step would then be going into drills or exercises where there would be some movement of students, and you'd take the actions to try and minimize the risk within classrooms, such as locking doors, turning off lights, closing blinds and perhaps having students stand in a particular portion of the classroom that's less visible through any window or door.

There are some schools which go beyond that and do live exercises, where they involve some element of simulation, what we call these high-intensity drills, where they actually use simulated weapons or actually even real weapons, where they have an actor pretending to be the shooter, where they may use sounds that are similar to bullets, for example, or a shooting. Those high-intensity drills are really the ones that we're most concerned about.

INSKEEP: Are those preparations helpful to young people?

SCHONFELD: So we don't have enough experience to know whether or not particular types of preparation help. We do know, though, that the high-intensity drills, which are intended to simulate an actual shooting, are going to be emotionally upsetting to children and to adults, and therefore, we don't think they're appropriate for use with children.

INSKEEP: I guess it seems intuitive that this would be emotionally upsetting, but can you spell that out for me and tell me what research shows that it is troubling in some way?

SCHONFELD: So what we do know from situations where some schools have done high-intensity drills, where they've actually used deception, where they have not informed children or sometimes even the staff that this is a drill or exercise, and they've made them so they seem very realistic - we know in those situations, kids get highly distressed. We've had children who have, you know, scribbled notes to parents or tried to reach them to say goodbye to them, thinking they might die. There was one report of a child who actually wrote with a marker on her body so that when her body was found, she would be able to let her parents know that she loved them. We've had kids that have, you know, been sobbing or have gotten very upset emotionally. So we know they're very upsetting.

INSKEEP: Granting that it can be upsetting, I believe there were students at Oxford High who said, my past training made me a little better prepared for this situation that really happened. Shouldn't kids be prepared in some way for this very real possibility or some crisis like it?

SCHONFELD: It's very hard to know what does work and what doesn't work and, more importantly, what level of preparation is necessary in rare events such as this. We certainly want children to be prepared to a reasonable extent so that they can be in their best position if something tragic were to occur. So I think having live drills but not making them high intensity is probably the way to go. So, for example, we do fire drills in schools, and those are live drills where children exit schools safely and quietly. There's no attempt at smoke to make it feel like a fire. There's no necessity to have people screaming in the hallways. What you want to do is help them learn how they should be moving safely in a crisis situation.

INSKEEP: What distinctions do you need to draw between the training for a 7-year-old, say, and a 17-year-old?

SCHONFELD: Well, unfortunately, these crisis drills can be upsetting for children of any age, particularly if they're high intensity. So a 7-year-old is capable of understanding what an active shooter drill is meant to try and prevent, and that may be upsetting to them, and they may have less ability to cope with some of their distress about it. But a 17-year-old may have an even greater sense of personal vulnerability and fear. And so it's just the skills that children have and the capacity to be able to cope with that distress varies, but also, the depth of their understanding of the risk also varies as they get older.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the Oxford situation specifically and thinking that perhaps the training that could most easily have saved lives was something that helped students to recognize that one of their fellow students was having a crisis. Is there that kind of training, and is it effective?

SCHONFELD: Well, what you're talking about is the reality - is that there isn't one solution to this problem because it's a complicated problem. And so we can't be putting all of our resources in just - to preparing kids for active shooters. What we need to do is put a lot of resources, perhaps much more resources, into preventing them in the first place. And so some of that would be to involve children in understanding how to identify distress among peers and how to help get help for them. We also need to help with the social and emotional development of children in general - do more work on helping with behavioral health in schools. So we have to invest our resources both in prevention as well as in what to do when the prevention isn't successful. But we can't put all of our resources and energies just into active shooter drills.

INSKEEP: Dr. David Schonfeld is the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles. Thanks so much.

SCHONFELD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASTRALIA'S "FAREWELL AND ENCOUNTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.