A history teacher at Worcester’s Claremont Academy was so traumatized by an active-shooter training exercise for educators that she left the classroom sobbing. The “training” involved a hooded man pointing a gun at teachers’ heads and saying “bang” as he fake-shot them one by one.
“How is this something that is going to help us?” the history teacher asked a Worcester Telegram columnist two years ago when recounting her experience, which was part of the district’s implementation of ALICE, a program designed to train teachers to respond to an active shooter in the school building. In Indiana, elementary school teachers were shot with plastic pellets during a similar active-shooter scenario last year, leaving many of the educators terrified.
Arming teachers with guns, buying bullet-resistant backpacks for kids, upgrading school building security systems with the latest technology — there seems to be no shortage of ideas to face the threat of the active shooter in a school. But no practice is as shocking as the simulation of an active shooter in a classroom full of kids. In the case of Worcester, the “victims” were teachers; but kids have increasingly become exposed to these damaging drills.
It’s why the two largest national teachers unions recently came out strongly against the active-shooter simulations in the classroom, arguing they can do more harm than good. In announcing their decision, the unions joined the nonprofit gun control advocacy Everytown for Gun Safety and released a white paper on the traumatizing effect shooting drills can have. “What these drills can really do is potentially trigger either past trauma or trigger such a significant physiological reaction that it actually ends up scaring the individuals instead of better preparing them to respond in these kinds of situations,” according to a former president of the National Association of School Psychologists quoted in the paper.
The logic is hard to argue with: We don’t set a classroom ablaze when we conduct fire drills in schools. Why should we do any differently with active-shooter scenarios?
Such fatal incidents in schools are tragic and terrifying to even contemplate. But fortunately, they are not common. Last year, there were five active-shooter incidents in K-12 schools across the country, according to the School Shooting Database Project of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. (The center uses the FBI definition of an active shooter as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.”) According to Education Week’s own database, eight people were killed in school shootings in 2019.
In Massachusetts, state officials do not track schools that conduct active-shooter drills, nor are there state guidelines to follow when a district conducts them. Boston 25 News recently surveyed more than 30 school districts in the state and found that there is wide variance among the practices schools use to prepare teachers, staff, and students for a mass shooting scenario. Roughly two-thirds of the districts hold active-shooter simulations; Boston Public Schools is not one of them. (BPS staff are trained by police officers for active shooters, but students are not included.) Most of the districts rely on the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) method. The nation’s leading active-shooter training company, ALICE was an early promoter of making teachers and students confront shooters. But an investigation by The Trace, a news outlet that specializes in gun violence, found very little evidence to support the company’s approach and protocols.
So what works for preventing mass school shootings? The short answer is that we don’t have enough independent scientific research to know. But to the extent that drills are valuable to train school staff, teachers, and students, they should be approached with extreme skepticism and care, and without traumatizing students. At a minimum, if schools continue to use them, more study of their effectiveness is needed, which could lead to state guidelines. And, if every other response to school shootings fails, perhaps the nation could finally confront the root cause: the easy availability of deadly weapons that has forced schools into asking the question of how to respond to mass shooters in the first place.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.