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Five years after Sandy Hook, active shooter drills do more harm than good in
James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 3:15 a.m. ET Dec. 14,
2017 | Updated 5:41 p.m. ET Dec. 14, 2017
Five years after the Sandy
Hook massacre, efforts to improve mental health care for young people have
had mixed results. Many reforms included in key piece of federal legislation
remain unfunded. (Dec. 13)
Young children are forced to cower behind
locked doors while an adult in black shouts threats and shoots blanks in the
hallways. This is not helping.
The Sandy Hook massacre didn't just
scar the friends and family of the 20 first-graders and six staff members
who were killed on Dec. 14, 2012, at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
It fundamentally changed the climate in grade schools nationwide. Millions
of youngsters, many too young today to recall what happened then, are all
too familiar with security measures designed to protect them from the bad
man with a gun - including metal detectors, surveillance cameras and
restrictions on non-clear bookbags. In some states, their homeroom teachers
may be carrying concealed firearms just in case.
In the school year
immediately following the Sandy Hook massacre, 70% of public schools drilled
students, including those in the primary grades, on how to respond in the
event of a shooting. Children as young as 5 or 6 are forced to cower behind
locked doors while an adult dressed in black roams the hallways shouting
threats and randomly shooting blanks. Not only are these especially young
and impressionable children the least likely to experience an actual
incident, Sandy Hook notwithstanding, but they are the most likely to be
traumatized by the simulations.
To make matters worse, some schools
include fake blood in the active shooter drills for sake of added realism.
Some choose not to give advance warning to the students - or to the parents
who then receive frantic text messages from their terrified children.
Despite the growing emphasis on protecting our youngest students from
active shooters, the actual risk of mass murder has not changed in recent
Since 2010, according to FBI reports on active shooter events,
there have been but three incidents, other than Sandy Hook, at elementary
Feb. 10, 2010: After learning that his contract was not being
renewed, a teacher at the Inskip Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn., shot
and injured two members of the administration.
Oct. 8, 2010: Two students
were injured when a 41-year-old gunman hopped the fence at the Kelly
Elementary School in Carlsbad, Calif., and started shooting. The assailant
did not attempt to enter the building.
Sept. 28, 2016: A distraught
adolescent armed with a handgun jumped the fence at the Townville Elementary
School in South Carolina, shooting three students and a teacher outside the
school. One of the students, a 6-year-old boy, died days later from his
Without minimizing the emotional and physical pain associated
with these episodes, the overwhelming majority of the 35 million students in
the elementary grades have not been harmed, not by actual armed intruders
that is. Aside from possibly making school playgrounds more secure, the need
for extraordinary measures to protect students from active shooters is
Of course, we should hardly ignore the safety and
well-being of youngsters nor disregard ways in which elementary schools can
protect their students. But obsessing over active shooters isn't the best
Between 2010 and 2015, an average of 26 children aged 6 to 11
were killed annually in bicycle accidents, yet most states do not mandate
helmets for children and the federal government has avoided the issue.
Programs like a Washington, D.C. initiative that teaches second-graders to
ride safely can take up the slack for negligent parents and politicians.
In the same 2010 to 2015 period, an annual average of nearly four dozen
youngsters aged 6 to 11 accidentally drowned in swimming pools. Maybe we
need more lifeguards at public pools rather than armed guards at public
For unlikely tragedies like Sandy Hook, we should train faculty
and staff, and simply instruct children to listen to the adult in the room
in the event of a real emergency. We can teach our children about bike
safety and pool safety, as well as other important lessons in living,
without traumatizing them as we do with active shooter preparedness drills.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on