How do we talk about shootings without traumatizing kids?
Associated Press/file 2014
This month, a Methuen school became the first in the country to install what is known as the Guardian Indoor Gunshot Detection system. The system, which was installed for free as part of a pilot program, is designed to alert first responders to the precise location of a gunman.
Two years after Adam Lanza shot 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., preparing for school shootings has become a reality of American life. School districts nationwide have enlisted a battalion of training programs and technologies, from standardized training procedures like the ALICE protocol (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate) to disturbing novelties like a child-sized bulletproof backpack. And since Massachusetts issued a task force report in July calling for renewed school security measures and drills, districts here, like Methuen, are in a scramble to keep up.
These measures have introduced their own law-enforcement-influenced jargon into conversations about kids’ safety. And in the process, they’ve launched an intense debate about how to make our language about this terrible but rare possibility direct enough to protect kids, without excessively frightening or even endangering them.
American students have been doing drills for decades: fire drills, tornado drills, and in the 1950s, “duck and cover” nuclear safety drills. But in recent years, we’ve started preparing students for the possibility of actual combat on school grounds. After the Columbine shootings of 1999, and to an even greater extent after the Sandy Hook shootings in December 2012, tactical gear companies with names like BulletBlocker, Guard Dog Security, and Armour Wear began selling bulletproof school supplies. Five US states now require schools to perform “active shooter” drills, while others, like Massachusetts, recommend it. Active-shooter training programs like ALICE, which has been adopted in a small but growing number of Massachusetts districts, or the Department of Homeland Security’s widely recommended “run, hide, fight” tactic, teach kids to make themselves poor targets by running away, hiding silently behind barricaded doors, or in case of last resort, distracting, throwing things at, or even swarming a gunman.
With these precautions has come a new vocabulary. “Active shooter,” for instance, in its modern sense of a gunman on a killing spree, began as police terminology after Columbine, according to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, but schools picked it up around the mid-2000s. “Lockdown,” he said, made the jump from prison lingo into the broader lexicon after the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007.
The ALICE protocols, designed by a former SWAT officer after the Columbine attacks, rely not just on that police-style language, but on a deliberately blunt way of talking about what happens during an attack, at least for older kids. (ALICE dials back on terms like “active shooter” in materials for young children—which include, for example, books like, “I’m Not Scared...I’m Prepared!”) In an ALICE training video made this spring by Waltham High students to be screened in Waltham middle and high schools, an ominous voice describes students’ options: “If you decide to counter the aggressor’s attack, you may be able to distract and disrupt the aggressor’s plan...and may be even able to disarm and subdue the aggressor until police arrive.”
For proponents, explicit language is pivotal for arming kids against an attacker and helping them move on after a shooting. Psychologist Robert D. Macy, director of the International Trauma Center and adviser to Massachusetts’ recent task force, said, “The classical argument is that it’s going to give [kids] PTSD if you talk about [a lockdown drill]. And that’s really an urban myth.” Age-appropriate and honest discussions, he said, citing research from Israel and Chechnya, build “stress inoculation,” making children less frightened in the long term. To a first-grade classroom, for example, he would say something like, “We do these exercises so we can protect your body when someone comes in to hurt you....I’m so sorry that you’re 6 years old and you have to worry about someone hurting you, but this is how we’re going to do it, and you can ask as many questions as you want.”
Other psychologists, parents, and teachers, however, argue that repeated drills using explicit language make children more frightened, not less. (Indeed, some question their function entirely, given that the odds of an American child being the victim of a school shooting, according to the National Association of School Psychologists, are still only 1 in 2.5 million.) Michael Dorn, executive director of school-safety consulting firm Safe Havens International, said that the active-shooter language “creates a great deal of anxiety, a great deal of fear, and lowers people’s ability to make good decisions.” “Run, hide, fight” is one example. Although “fight” is meant to be the last recourse, “what we know is that that alarmist, frightening language results in people focusing on the last resort.”
Stephen Brock, president of the National Association of School Psychologists and a professor at California State University, Sacramento, agreed that overly graphic language can limit a drill’s effectiveness. The most helpful drills he has seen, he said, are ones “explained to [students] by adults as ‘things we’re going to do just to make extra sure you’re safe at school,’ and [in which] dramatic language like an ‘armed assailant drill’ or an ‘active shooter drill’ is avoided.” The group is currently working to help design more consistent, age-appropriate recommendations for lockdown drills.
For the moment, however, administrators are working these things out district by district. Paul Stein is school superintendent in Wayland, a district in the process of adopting the ALICE protocols, which he said he “hoped will feel empowering and not scary.” He said his teachers and principals chose their words very carefully, using “silent safety drill” with elementary-school kids instead of “lockdown,” for instance.
In the end, Stein observed, teachers—and parents—can do the most good simply by listening to children and responding to their cues. If a young child says, for instance, “‘I heard about an intruder and they came in. Is somebody going to come here?’ You can say: ‘That’s really unusual. Schools are very safe places.’”
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.
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