In a few days our nation’s children will return to school — — some already have. They will be greeted with the usual staples of education in America: new classes and teachers, the latest and trendiest technology and school supplies followed shortly by relentless test taking. It is probable they will also be met with more recent school staples: active shooter drills and armed guards or police monitoring their hallways. The first few back-to-school staples are benign. But the newer practices are a real problem. For our children, going to school has never been so terrifying — not because they are likely to encounter an active shooter — the vast majority won’t — but because for several years now we have drilled the terrifying possibility into their impressionable bones.
We tell kindergartners to hush while they hide under desks or in closets; we teach them songs to sing and games to play so they will remember how to hide and stay quiet if a shooter is in their school. We teach them how to scatter, running in different directions away from a gunman — a game known as popcorn in some schools. We direct elementary school children, as a last resort if they hear a gunman about to enter a room, to fight back, pelting him with books, erasers, or anything handy. And we show them how to balance while standing on the toilet so the shooters won’t be able to see their tiny feet.
It’s true that gun violence is at epidemic proportions in America. But while the deadliest and most horrific public shootings break our hearts and stoke our outrage, the truth is that we are preparing children for an event that more than 99% will never experience — while creating a source of potential trauma for 100% of children trembling under their desks.
Let’s be clear, while absolutely heartbreaking and tragic when they do occur, school shootings are incredibly rare. In research published last year, researcher James Alan Fox, Professor of Criminology and Law at Northeastern University and doctoral candidate Emma E. Fridel found that on average, mass murders occur between 20 and 30 times per year, and about one of those incidents on average takes place at a school — -for the entire United States.
Our collective response is so out of proportion to the risk that, predictably, there is an entire industry around school shootings, such as the for-profit businesses supplying bulletproof backpacks to terrified parents and private security companies specializing in must-have school shooting expertise, arming guards and policing the students. (They reportedly work to halt bullets fired from handguns, not AR-15s or AK-47s).
Teachers are not immune from the terror either: earlier this year an active shooter drill in Indiana garnered national attention after a mock gunmen shot teachers with rubber pellets, “executing” them one at a time.
What are we doing to our children, parents and teachers?
This is what: In the name of our deepest fears, we are traumatizing a whole generation, drilling them again and again to imagine terrifying scenarios at school.
I don’t blame schools or parents for trying everything they can imagine to keep children safe. Congress has not taken the necessary measures to pass strong policies, and after each mass shooting calls for change are loud but nothing has changed. This leaves communities to their own devices. But it is time to question whether such continuous shooter drills are worth the trauma we are inflicting on a generation of children.
While many school administrations are stepping up their “realistic” shooting drills, they are also subjecting kids to trauma and the increased fortification of their schools — more guards, more armed guards, dramatized shootings replete with fake blood and student-actors’ “bodies” on the hallway floors, black and Latino children are struggling to shake free of the over-policing that has now followed them from the streets into the classroom.
Moreover, school policing efforts have not necessarily made our nation’s schools safer. According to the National Institute for Education Statistics, 20 years ago, about 10 percent of public schools employed at least one police officer; by 2014, 42 percent did. As rare as school shootings are, there has been no significant deterrence of crime or decrease in school shootings (remember, guards at Columbine and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas were armed).
Instead, there has been an increase in the number of students of color who wind up stunned with tasers in the classroom and arrested for youthful infractions such as fistfights and vandalism, infractions that once were met with a trip to the principal’s office, a call home or suspension.
Police officers on school campuses can legally use physical force on students, handcuff them, and have them arrested for simply misbehaving. Far from creating a safe environment to learn, such policing fuels the school-to-prison pipeline — the entry point to the criminal justice system for too many black and brown kids — and contributes to mass incarceration. We cannot forget the trauma caused by this unnecessary force, witnessed by other students, and the long term effect it has on the psyche of the students.
Nothing resists facts like fear, but here goes: Schools are among the least likely places in our society for gun violence. Most deaths by firearms are suicides; then community shootings and interpersonal violence. Then unintentional shootings. Last is what preoccupies us most — mass shootings in public spaces and specifically, schools.
It’s up to each school to figure out what’s best for their students, but parents and school administrators must look at the data and square that with their own fears of school shootings. Just as schools should not be forced to abandon the drills, neither should they be required to have them. And let’s remember that when making districtwide policies, what might be under consideration for suburban schools can be harmful for our urban schools.
The hardening of our schools and therein our children is not benign. Active shooter drills have consequences and so does the influx of school resource officers — especially in urban schools. So, let’s be honest about what we’re doing. We aren’t saving or protecting most kids, but we are certainly traumatizing many and downright victimizing others.
Brian Malte is the Executive Director of the Hope and Heal Fund, a philanthropy working to end gun violence in California.