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Growing Up with School Lockdowns and Active Shooter Drills

Child psychiatrist Victor Carrion offers advice and context for the new normal.

By Melinda Sacks

As students and parents across the country wrestle with the onslaught of news about school shootings, ever younger children are participating in lockdown and active shooter drills during class.

A handful of states are considering or have passed bills requiring that schools hold active shooter drills, including Florida, New York and South Carolina. Meanwhile, the Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing School Violence Act of 2018 (STOP) passed the House and is now before the Senate judiciary committee. If enacted into law, it would provide additional funding for security measures such as metal detectors and other deterrents. In one Oklahoma school district, schools have installed bulletproof storm bunkers called Shelter-In-Place to protect children during a shooting event. Meanwhile, business is taking off for companies selling everything from high-tech locks (“Bearacade: The fastest, strongest, safest, and most affordable way to secure your office or classroom”) to bulletproof whiteboards and inserts for backpacks. (“Turn any backpack into a lifesaver.”)

It is no wonder that parents, teachers and even young children are feeling stressed about school safety. And the concern can compound preexisting worries: Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental disorder among children 13 to 18 years old, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Victor Carrion, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, studies stress and vulnerability. He talked with STANFORD about how children and their families can cope.

STANFORD: Is violence on school campuses having an impact on anxiety in children and families?

CARRION: We are all hearing about this constantly; people are really talking about it. It boils down to the question: Can something happen here? And, of course, we all know the answer.

In this day and age, where kids are finding out about everything from their peers or the internet, it is always good for the parents to be proactive in talking about difficult topics. Ideally, the communication door is always open. If a kid learns about news in other ways, you want them to know they can come and talk to the parents. I recommend to parents to really try to present the issue simply and answer whatever questions the child has. If they have a question tonight or tomorrow, at least they know where to go to talk.

How can parents talk to their young children about such a scary topic?

It’s important to approach challenging topics in a developmentally sensitive way, depending on where your child is and what history your kid has. If they have no particular mental health issues, [I recommend] just assuring them what is being done is to provide safety and security.

Children want to know that their caregivers and the affiliated care systems are in control — that they know what they are doing, and that they are going to be taken care of.

‘Carrying out a drill in a vacuum can be stressful, but in the right context it can give children more confidence.’

At what point does a child’s worry or anxiety become a problem?

There is a lot of worry growing up. It is normal for children to worry about things. As humans, we are designed to carry some angst. But if you think of a child carrying a backpack, if it gets too heavy you can fall backwards. That is what we are seeing, and that is what we must work to avoid.

If you are worried about your child’s stress level, look for a change in their function. Parents might say, “Well, this kid always has good grades and her grades are shifting, or he has always gotten along with his siblings and now he is constantly having fights, or he is becoming more withdrawn, not eating well.” Any facets of function, if there is a change, you want to understand where that is coming from. Very young children can become clingier. Older kids somaticize — they get a stomachache or a headache. Adolescents withdraw.

With all the simulations and drills, how can we give kids the tools they need to stay safe without terrifying them?

The challenge is you have to prepare the kids for something to happen. But you don’t want to add anxiety through preparation. It’s not so much about having a drill or not having a drill, but how you are going to talk about it. How are you going to present it? It should be, “This is a safe environment and we will take care of you. This drill is part of that process.” It is important for them to feel the adults have control.

Carrying out a drill in a vacuum can be stressful, but in the right context it can give children more confidence. There need to be three steps. First, there needs to be a school orientation about the drill, then the actual practice of the drill and, afterwards, processing how children felt during the exercise. It all needs to be done with appropriate teacher support, care and education.

Is there an approach you would recommend for communities to deal with the current climate and concern about school shootings?

It is not about partnering with the children. The school can partner with police, parents, the county — they can all work together to create an environment where the child continues to feel safe, secure and protected.

It doesn’t matter how much threat is out there. What we want to avoid is a silo approach: The school is doing something, the parents are doing something, the community is doing something. The ideal is that all the caregivers are together and the kid can go back to worrying about their own growth, how are they going to develop socially and emotionally, and being a child. •

Melinda Sacks, ’74, is a senior writer at STANFORD.