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School Lockdown Calculus: The Line Between Preparedness And Trauma

(Cory Doctorow/flickr)
(Cory Doctorow/flickr)

By Dr. Steven Schlozman
Guest Contributor

“If there’s a lockdown and they tell me to go under the table, and there’s a window open next to my desk, I’m going out that window. There’s no way I’m sticking around.”

That’s what a 14-year-old boy recently told me after he was reminded again that with the start of the school year comes as well the now increasingly familiar “lockdown” drill protocols.

Not very long ago, you'd probably have to ask kids what "lockdown drill" meant. Now, however, most kids recognize the term as routine. There's recess, lunch-time, fire drills and lockdowns. Since the beginning of this school year alone, there have been more than 10 actual school lockdowns across our nation. One, as recently as this week, in New York. Importantly, none of these incidents featured the horrible images that come to mind when we picture nightmares like Sandy Hook or Columbine. A child might think she's seen a gun in the school, or neighbors nearby might brandish shotguns in the midst of suburban altercations.

In all cases, schools aren't taking any chances. The lockdown is quickly enacted and, school officials are quick to note, no one gets hurt.

But at what cost? Is there a psychological risk to what has now become routine practice? It's time that we examine the lockdown and all its potential repercussions.

As a child psychiatrist, I worry a lot about these drills. Schools regularly ask for advice from mental health professionals on these matters, and parents often reach out and ask, understandably, what we ought to do in the setting of the still enormously rare and, at the same time, increasing and enormously traumatic spate of school shootings. The implementation of the mandatory lock down drill at our nation’s schools represents an awful lot of energy and resources and a potentially significant threat to the psychological well-being of our students in preparation for something that still thankfully hardly every happens.

Here are the facts:

•School shootings are horrific.

•School shootings are extremely rare.

•School shootings are increasing (at least according to this FBI analysis).

•Given how rare these events are, one can accurately say that school shootings are in fact increasing at a steady clip.

In other words, if we go hypothetically from one event to four events per year, that’s a fourfold increase even though the overall number of schools without incidents still massively dwarfs the schools that have had to endure a shooter.

•Every parent and every teacher worries about these events.

•Kids, it turns out, seems to worry less about these shootings than do adults.

•Some kids, however, are significantly frightened by these drills.

If we do drills to protect our students against shooters that are unlikely to ever haunt a school, we risk frightening our young people by planning for intentional acts of harm. This, according to studies of traumatic response, is likely to increase psychological risk. On this other hand, when we prepare them for the rare likelihood that harm will occur, this is likely to decrease psychological harm should a real threat occur.

We also have almost no data that documents the effects of these drills on students.

Lockdown As Distraction?

I felt certain as I sat down to write this post that most children and teens would be horribly frightened during these exercises. However, as I researched this through both academic studies, and then by simply asking some kids in my neighborhood, it turned out at that both in what little data exist and among the kids I asked, the whole thing was sort of a non-issue, especially to the older kids.

There was a great piece last year in The New York Times reporting that teens see the lockdown as a kind of distraction. The same article noted that while some elementary school kids incorporated the lockdown into their play, in general only a smattering of younger children were significantly bothered.

In fact, many compared the drills to already existing disaster protocols. I grew up in Kansas where tornado drills were routine and yet tornadoes themselves were thankfully rare. We watched movies about tornadoes in school, grew used to the testing of the warning sirens at noon on the first Wednesday of the month, and when we got under our desks or into the basements of the school, it all seemed pretty basic. I didn’t go home thinking that a tornado was imminent, and I don’t think my friends did either.

But there’s an important variable that we need to consider when we turn to this analogy. Tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, indeed all natural disasters, are not human-driven, intentionally barbaric events. We know from studies that while all disasters can cause traumatic responses, events in which intentionality is clear — someone is trying to do something bad — pose the greatest risk for traumatic syndromes among survivors.

We also know that feeling helpless increases the risk for traumatic syndromes.

These two facts add an important twist to our inquiry: If we do drills to protect our students against shooters that are unlikely to ever haunt a school, then we both risk frightening our young people by planning for intentional acts of harm, thus increasing traumatic risk, and we prepare them for the rare likelihood that harm will occur, thus decreasing traumatic risk.

Talk about a devil’s choice.

Drilling, But Not Too Much

So let’s ask the question differently. If we are to have drills, which drills are too much? What represents the extreme?

In April 2013, I was asked by Huffington Post Live to comment on the psychological effects of increasing efforts in schools to train children and adolescents to attack and defend themselves against an active school shooter. In some school districts, kids as young as 8 are being taught to attack, throw staplers, even leap from the top of a desk onto a shooter's shoulders. Importantly, this kind of approach lacks the support of many law enforcement officers. Nevertheless, you can see the attractiveness of these programs. As one person I was talking to put it, “well, it beats just sitting there and waiting to get shot.”

But if kids think of their schools as battlegrounds, it’s hard for me to imagine them actually learning. Try getting a frightened kid to learn. In fact, try getting anything with a moderately advanced and frightened brain to learn. These tactics, I am comfortable saying, are fraught with unnecessary challenges.

Similarly, schools that conduct drills in which teachers or actors simulate shooters also seem to me to be a too extreme. Having a masked fake gunman go door to door in school adds a level of verisimilitude that is highly likely to frighten a good many kids.

Seeking Best Practices

The fact is that we simply don’t have an understanding of best practices yet with regard to the proper preparation for school shooters. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have drills. That just means that our drills should take into account the developmental state of the children and the unique vulnerabilities that each child brings to these drills.

If a child suffers from an anxiety disorder, it makes sense to spend extra time helping that child to better process the drill. One might even use something like tornado drills as a metaphor. Though the metaphor, as we’ve said, is far from perfect, comparing a lockdown drill to something more familiar is a good place to start. Familiarity helps with anxiety.

How do we talk with our children about these issues?

We discuss these issues in developmentally informed and honest terms.

For younger children, we should be clear that while most people in the world are not harmful, some people do sometimes do bad things, and we need to know how to respond. For older children and teens, we can move to a more nuanced language.

Tell a teen that you don’t think you will ever have to convert the drill to anything other than a rehearsal, but that you would never forgive yourself if you didn’t have something in place. That kind of preparation makes sense to a teenager. It’s not that different from the scary films they watch in driver’s education.

These are not easy times. Anxieties abound for all sorts of good reasons. But we don’t need to add to these anxieties. A carefully construed approach to the lockdown will strike the right balance between preparation and trauma.

And then we hope and we pray that we never have to use these drills at all.

Steven Schlozman, M.D. is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a staff child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. Please post or ask questions below, or tweet Dr. Schlozman at @zombieautopsies.

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