By Carleton H. Brown
Carleton Brown and co-author David DeMatthews published the article “There’s a Shooting at the Middle School” in Volume 87, Number 2, of KDP’s Educational Forum. The article is available free in the month of April.
As an Associate Professor who has been studying, presenting, writing, and researching gun violence and school shootings, it is more than evident to me that America has a gun violence problem.
It is difficult to argue against this point as plenty of statistics provide clear evidence. For instance, in the last five years, there has been a steady increase in the firearm death rate, with well over 35,000 firearm deaths documented in 2020 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022) and over 40,000 total incidents reported in 2021 as well as 2022 (Gun Violence Archive, 2022).
Of these numbers, there have been more than 40 school shootings since 2021 (Gun Violence Archive, 2022). These tragedies are particularly alarming because the target is our society’s most innocent and vulnerable. Although community members may disagree on many things, it’s safe to say that we all agree that these events happening where we expect safety and security to reign supreme is profoundly troubling.
Appropriately, much attention has been given to safe schools and protecting our most vulnerable. However, the debate about how best to prepare our schools for such a tragedy is far from settled. At the heart of the discussion is whether schools should conduct school shooting drills.
Proponents for conducting active-shooter drills make a compelling case, focusing on preparedness, awareness, and routinization. They argue that, by conducting regular practices, school members are better equipped to protect and respond, more aware of the critical significance of school safety and prevention measures, and able to establish school safety routines that may help to reduce fear and disruption. Some schools perform realistic simulations to immerse and normalize any anticipated experience for school members.
Opponents of school-shooting drills make a persuasive case, too, as they emphasize concerns related to trauma, desensitization, and resources. They argue that conducting school shooting drills is trauma-inducing for youth and other school members, particularly those who have already experienced trauma and find exercises a triggering experience. Furthermore, a steady diet of drills may cause school members not to take threats seriously and lead to questions of whether school administrators should use resources provided for conducting these drills in better ways, such as violence prevention, intervention programs, and additional mental-health services.
A primary reason for caution in conducting drills is there has often been more attention to securing physical safety than psychological safety. Any student or school member who has been predisposed to trauma is susceptible to heightened emotional disturbance in a rehearsal of a traumatic event. Thus, it makes sense for schools to seek local input from the community, particularly parents, regarding having such trials and discuss specific psychological safety plans and opt-out options for school members. If the goal of the drills is educational, consider how to make drills developmentally appropriate versus how to make drills as realistic as possible. With that said, continuing professional development for school faculty, staff, and leaders before implementing exercises is critical.
Ultimately, due to America’s gun violence problem, determining whether or not to conduct school-shooting drills may not be an easy decision, but it is an essential conversation at any school in the United States. School leaders must base their decision on several factors, such as local and state policies, community input, resources, and continued education. Research has made clear that learning from the experiences of school-shooting survivors is beneficial in determining and deciding about appropriate prevention measures. Therefore, the number-one priority for all is continual education.
Carleton H. Brown is an associate professor at the University of Texas at El Paso in the Counseling, Special Education, and Educational Psychology department. He has worked in school districts as a secondary education teacher, school counselor, as well as workshop leader and advisor to school leaders. He studies issues related to leadership, supervision, and advocacy.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). National Vital Statistics System, Mortality.
Gun Violence Archive. (2022). Total Incidents [Data set].