Safe Schools Do No Harm
Of all of the rich discussions at the National Summit on School Safety where I recently presented, it became apparent that there is a strong need for a broader discussion about how despite best intentions, we are undermining resilience with reactive crisis preparedness efforts.
Building resilience is a process of increasing protective factors and decreasing risk factors.
In an attempt to prepare for a school shooting or other tragic event, it is becoming commonplace to override what should be the most basic rule of any system: Do no harm.
Deception in Schools—When Crisis Preparedness Efforts Go Too Far is a two-page Commentary by colleagues from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, the National Association of School Psychologists well worth your read.
This compelling Commentary highlights the harm that can be done by mock attack drills. In some of these drills, adults actually point weapons, sometimes even loaded weapons, at our children.
“Rather than taking steps to prevent these incidents, school officials and first responders misguidedly chose to create these experiences…. officials justified their actions by comparing the deception with unannounced fire drills. They stated that such exercises were “vital in order to evaluate not only law enforcement response, but more importantly to educate the students and school officials in case an actual event were to occur.” One police officer explained, ‘How you train and how you prepare is how you’re going to react when everything goes bad.’”
Panic from these types of drills can quickly ripple through the school and out the doors as students send text messages to parents and others. I have been on the receiving end of a lock down text from my child and witnessed the level of anxiety that quickly ripples through a community when parents believe that the lives of their children might be threatened. I do not wish this experience on any student, family or community, even in the name of seeking to protect our children.
The Commentary tells how after one mock exercise, when students were angry for being intentionally misled about the deaths of their peers, a school profession said, “They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized. That’s how they get the message.”
No. No. No. This is not okay.
We do not want our children to be traumatized. This is not how they “get” or learn from any intended message.
Let’s go back to basics: Do no harm.
Yes, we must remain vigilant about threats to school safety.
Yes, we must recognize the value of preparedness and safety drills.
Yes, we must encourage cooperation between schools and law enforcement to ensure the safest environment possible.
But we must never leave a student in a worse place than he or she was before walking through the school door if we can prevent it.
Creating safe schools begins by acknowledging that collectively we are scared. Bad things – unimaginably bad things – have happened in some of our schools. As mothers who lost children at Sandy Hook, Michele Gay and Alissa Parker, the hosts of the National Summit on School Safety, understand this all too well. Through extraordinary leadership, they are playing a pivotal role in the creation of positive and life-affirming solutions for students.
When tragedies happen (and get replayed by the media over and over…and over), our sense of safety gets shaken to its core. In response, we tend to react from fear. As we seek to protect ourselves and those we love, we can overreact in how we choose to try to keep those bad things from coming to our own door.
In too many communities across the country, this equates to sending armed or theatrically armed assailants into schools to “educate” the staff and students on how to respond in case of an actual attack.
Drills involving predatory actions (even mock shooters), gunfire (even use of blanks), and wounding or death (even fake blood and false death reports), especially with an element of surprise, are not the answer.
These drills are potentially traumatic to all. Beyond this, special consideration must be given to students and staff with trauma histories, prior losses, or mental health conditions.
It is time to collectively take a deep breath and acknowledge that despite the horrendous tragedies we have experienced, the fact is that schools remain among the safest environments for our kids. Although one incident of armed assailants in schools is one too many, we can take some comfort that these incidents are still quite rare – and there are legions of professionals dedicating their lives to using best practices to make our schools even safer.
It is helpful to broaden our perspective beyond active shooter threats and be intentional about comprehensive crisis preparedness plans. These plans should include preparation for all situations that might deeply impact the lives of students or staff members, including natural disasters, fire, student or school staff death by suicide or tragic circumstances, school vehicle accidents, use of weapons, and other crises.
Best practices and guidelines are available to facilitate crisis preparedness drills that maximize benefits while minimizing distress, such as those jointly created by the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers (updated 2017).
These best practices take into consideration the developmental maturity and trauma histories of students, involve mental health professionals in planning and implementation, avoid deception, and provide notice and the opportunity to opt out.
As the Commentary concludes:
Intentionally causing terror, distress, or grief, even if intended to prevent the likelihood of later death or disability, ignores our obligation to minimize the risk of both psychological and physical harm. We are aware of no evidence that live drills involving the deception of immediate risk of death and/or simulations that deceive children (or adults) of the death of friends helps prevent disability or death, but there is an extremely high likelihood (perhaps even a certainty) that it will cause significant emotional distress for some children.
What are the current policies of the schools in your community?
Parents and community members have a right to ask about school practices related to simulations and active shooter drills. Community professionals have an obligation to learn about and support best practices.
Professionals from education, law enforcement, mental health and other disciplines are collaborating to provide the guidance we need to minimize harm as we seek to make our schools a safer place for all.
Are we listening? Our kids certainly deserve that we do so.
Note: Thank you to Dr. David Schonfeld, one of the authors (with Rossen & Woodard) of “Deception in Schools—When Crisis Preparedness Efforts Go Too Far” for sharing this important commentary with us. Reprinted from JAMA Pediatrics November 2017 Volume 171, Number 11 1033 © 2017 American Medical Association.