Are active shooter drills too scary for schoolchildren?

Chances are your youngster will come home from school one day and ask, "Who is Mr. Lock?" Mr. Lock isn't a real person, but he's not a storybook character, either. 

When "Mr. Lock, come to the office!" blares out of a school public address system, every teacher and student springs into action. Pupils make a dash for a classroom, library or any supposedly safe area. Teachers slam and then bar the classroom door with a desk or file cabinet. Pupils crouch behind a wall or hide under a desk in absolute silence in case they hear gunshots.

Is this scary for young children? Absolutely. It's so scary that many schools don't even refer to it as a "lockdown," preferring to use euphemisms such as Mr. Lock. Either way, parents of children as young as nursery school age have to explain what it means, how to react and how much or how little to be afraid. Elementary school children have been recruited into a very young army.

School shootings have been a grisly part of the American scene since 1999, when a pair of teenage boys went on a rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 12 helpless students and a teacher in what was then the "deadliest school shooting in history." 

At that time the threat was from fellow students who brought guns to class to settle scores. School officials reacted by installing metal detectors, hiring armed security guards and focusing on lockdown drills in high schools.

But the learning curve got steeper and intensified after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 young children and six faculty members lost their lives when a 20-year-old outsider shot his way into the school. This time, a mentally disturbed man was determined to kill as many children as possible -- and he was more than capable and willing to break doors and windows to get at his victims.

The end result: 20 states now have specific laws requiring "lockdown" drills in all public schools, and 30 states have broad emergency plans that may encompass lockdowns. 

While many other school districts, as well as private schools, have chosen to adopt Mr. Lock on their own, some have gone even further. Police are invited into schools to act as "perpetrators" wearing black face masks, shooting off blanks that simulate gunshots, stalking students and "shooting" them with air guns to create victims with fake blood. To make the situation as real, and chaotic, as possible, they're accompanied by emergency teams.

Is this really necessary? Just how far should an "active shooter" drill go before it causes more harm than good? Will young children, children with autism or special needs, such as those who can't run and hide, be permanently scarred when their school becomes a mock battlefield?

There's no easy answer. Many say lockdowns are enough, arguing that schools are still essentially safe places and that children should learn the same basic rules they learn in fire drills: Listen to the adult giving directions, stay calm and act in an orderly manner. This kind of lockdown should be a "routine part of the school culture," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.

During the most recent actual shooting case at the Rancho Tehama Elementary School in Northern California, the lockdown worked, thanks to an alert staff. Despite spraying the school with bullets from the outside, only one student was wounded by the shooter who got frustrated and left. He was killed by police shortly thereafter.

"Lockdowns are the gold standard, and almost all school safety experts recommend them," said Katherine Cowan, director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). But Cowan also pointed out that research on the subject is limited. And some advocate taking a more aggressive approach to active shooter drills -- like fighting back.

"We've taught a generation of Americans to be passive and wait for police," said Greg Crane, a former police officer and a founder of the ALICE school safety program. ALICE, the acronym for Alert/Lockdown/Inform/Counter/Evacuate, contends that children have to go beyond the lockdown phase and challenge a shooter in their immediate area by shouting, throwing books, distracting him or her and running in different directions to make themselves tougher targets.

"I have made it my life's work to dismiss lockdown as a sole response plan," said Crane.

Both sides have their advocates -- and critics. Dr. Stephen Brock of NASP claims ALICE training is an "overreaction and potentially dangerous" with the unrealistic premise of teaching 8-year-olds to attack mass shooters with pencils and magic markers.

The lockdown at Newtown probably saved many children. But what was equally important was the willingness of six staff members to sacrifice their lives by delaying the shooter's access to the children.

"What research there is shows that training empowers the staff," said NASP's Cowan. But just as with adults, such training often isn't realistic enough. Cowan likens it to the drill airline passengers go through each time they board an aircraft. The flight attendants or videos show and tell people what to do, but they never simulate a real emergency. 

"A woman sitting next to the emergency door during a real crisis was yanking on her armrest rather than the door latch until the person next to her reached over and pulled it," Cowan said, citing a real incident.

Even though schools may have a reputation for safety, each active shooter incident seems to breed the potential for another. And for parents, there's no guarantee that a private school or high-end public school will keep your child safe. "This isn't just an inner-city problem anymore," said Cowan.

"There's no cookbook approach," said Dr. Peter Crist, a Stockton, New Jersey, psychiatrist with a family practice. "Kids need to feel safe. Schools have policies, but they might terrify one youngster while motivating another. It has to be geared to the age of the child. And adults can't abdicate their authority and leave it to the school."

So it looks like Mr. Lock will be in American schools for a long time. But how he's handled and the threat he poses -- not only to commit an actual crime but to create terror and anxiety -- will be up to each school district, and ultimately to parents. Meantime, the National Education Association provides guidance for how parents should explain a lockdown to their children:

Emphasize that schools are safe. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.

Take time to listen and be available to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering while you do the dishes or yard work.

Observe children's emotional state. Some may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can indicate a child's level of anxiety or discomfort.

Limit media exposure, such as TV viewing. Monitor what kids are doing online and how they're consuming information about events through social media. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Be mindful of the content of conversations you have in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful and angry comments that might be misunderstood.

Maintain a normal routine by keeping to a regular schedule. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities, but don't push them if they seem overwhelmed.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.