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Do active shooter drills hurt or help? Cincy schools debate policy change after drill-gone-wrong

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Posted at 11:29 PM, Feb 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-13 11:38:38-05

CINCINNATI — The two largest teachers unions in the United States called Wednesday for big changes to active shooter drills in schools, arguing that they are unnecessarily traumatic and do not make students safer.

A report issued jointly by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety recommended significant modifications to existing drills — informing parents ahead of time, avoiding realistic elements such as the sound of gunfire — and emphasized they should never be the only shooting preparedness plan a school or district has.

Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, said she agrees.

“I think it’s really important that, as we move on, we really take that into consideration,” she said. “Something that is supposed to be helping our children may be causing more harm than good. … The evidence is not there that it is making them safer.”

Cincinnati Public Schools is already in the process of re-evaluating its active shooter drills, but the district isn’t reacting to the report. It’s reacting to a Jan. 24 incident at the Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies, where teachers and students mistook an unannounced drill for the real thing.

Teacher Kristan Sterling said many of her students huddled in a corner when they heard the principal announce an intruder in the building, but others grabbed scissors and prepared to defend themselves.

In another classroom, one teacher hid under a sink while her colleague waited at the door to hit the nonexistent gunman with a heavy object.

"I was furious," Sterling said later. "I was furious. What could have happened had we thought this school resource officer or our principal or whoever else was checking the halls were a real intruder.”

The Everytown report argues unannounced incidents like this can genuinely traumatize students, teaching them to be scared instead of teaching them how to keep themselves safe.

To that end, “Everytown, AFT, and NEA support trauma-informed training for school staff on how to respond to active shooter situations,” according to the report. “This might include training on lockout and evacuation procedures and emergency medical training. Our organizations do not recommend training for students and firmly believe that schools must be very mindful of the impact of active shooter drills that involve students and take that into consideration when designing such programs and determining whether to include students.”

If drills must be performed, the report recommends:

  1. They should not include simulations “that mimic an actual incident”
  2. Parents, students and teachers should be told ahead of time
  3. Drills should be tailored to the age and developmental level of the students experiencing it
  4. Drills should be paired with “trauma-informed approaches to address students’ well-being”
  5. Schools should track the drills’ effectiveness and help bolster the small amount of data available about how best to perform them.

Cincinnati Public Schools board of education member Mike Moroski said his district is considering robo-calls to alert parents before and after the drills, improving teacher training over the summer, working with experts to minimize trauma and improving communication so everyone knows about the drill ahead of time.

“I’m of the mind that these drills can cause unnecessary trauma,” he said. “We want our kids to be safe, but I don’t know necessarily if we need to traumatize them in the process.”

The district’s general counsel will spend February meeting with teachers and community members to hear their suggestions for policy changes. He expects to present a formal set of recommendations in March.