In March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law altering the nature of active shooter drills in Washington schools. The legislation addresses the mental toll of having students engage in reenactments while preparing for a potential gunman.
Concern for the mental health of students is warranted; students are facing unprecedented challenges, ranging from the difficulties of a pandemic to the unlikely but very real possibility of a school shooting. But when administrators find themselves weighing the risk of a school shooting against the trauma of active shooter drills, we truly are lost as a society.
In other words, the United States’ disinterest in effective measures to prevent mass shootings is failing our children.
In support of Washington’s bill, lawmakers said it was designed to address school practices that vividly mimic active shooter drills, in which students create barricades to block classroom doors.
“In the name of safety . . . the practice was creating more trauma than creating the behavioral modification that we want to see,” Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle and chair of the House Education committee, told Crosscut.com. “School safety is as much about the social-emotional health of our students, and in our state policies we unwittingly contributed to some of that trauma.”
Baby boomers might remember the frightening H-bomb drills when they were schoolchildren. Lockdown drills still will occur in Washington schools, along with practice sessions for sheltering in place and evacuations for fires. But the persistent presence of possible shootings is weighing on our children — even when the most prominent of those shootings takes place 2,000 miles away.
As The Columbian reported this week, following events such as the murder of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, local schools point parents and children toward grief support systems.
“When kids have had deaths or traumatic experiences in their life, they’re more at risk for challenges in school, depression and anxiety,” said Jana DeCristofaro of a support network in Portland. “The peer group support groups are there to help kids feel a sense of connection. To better understand what grief can look like. To keep ongoing connections.”
Even young grade-schoolers are not immune from the worries of the world. They have access to news reports of shootings and often are aware of the threats faced by schools.
Because of that climate, an estimated 95 percent of schools in the United States hold active shooter drills. And still, according to Education Week, more than 80 people have been killed or injured in campus shootings this year. Santos said: “There is an increasing divide in Americans’ ability to have a common ground around policy with respect to guns and the place of guns in society.”
That divide has made it impossible for this nation to embrace common sense regarding assault weapons, which are a common thread in the most deadly mass shootings.
Tepid measures that have been passed by Congress and sent to President Joe Biden include strengthening background checks and incentivizing states to pass “red flag” laws. Those measures are worthy, but they eschew any attempt to rekindle the kind of assault-weapons ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004, before being allowed by Congress to sunset.
Until that discussion is held in earnest, we will continue to fail our students. Instead, we will be a nation in which having those students engage in active shooter drills is somehow regarded as a sensible solution to the problem.