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Active shooter drills are doing more harm than good

Every few months, schools all across the country hold a lockdown drill.

A teacher locks the classroom door. If the door has a window, she tapes paper over it.

The students know what to do: retreat to a corner of the classroom and hunch down out of sight. They are told to keep quiet and silence their phones.

Thus positioned, these students — who range in age from kindergarten to college — are “sheltering in place,” supposedly safe from anyone who might want to do them harm.

In the decades since the school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, sheltering in place has become the gold standard in school safety.

Although there is no evidence to prove this, experts have promulgated the idea that locking a door and hiding is the best way to protect students and teachers from the rampages of a school shooter.

This was proven tragically wrong at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were massacred last week while following these directions.

To be clear: the gunman is responsible for these killings. But there were other failures in Uvalde that will take months, even years, to sort out. The wide availability of assault rifles, and the tragically inept police response, contributed to the carnage.

But one positive development that could come out of this massacre is the end of the shelter-in-place credo. When practiced, it generates needless stress for young people; when employed in an emergency, it turns students and teachers into sitting ducks.

A 2021 study found that depression and anxiety in students increased by 39 to 42 percent after a lockdown drill. The report, published in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, recommended that the drills be replaced by other school safety measures.

Some researchers maintain that lockdown exercises, sometimes called “active shooter drills,” not only increase anxiety but can stimulate a trauma response in students.

It has come to this: the Chicago Public Schools has a guide to traumatic events called “The Day After.” Some of us can remember when that ominous phrase was a movie title referring not to school violence but nuclear war. “The day after,” once a term of horrific improbability, has entered the realm of the everyday.

It makes sense to have a “day after” plan to help students process tragedy. There is no evidence, however, that “day before” rehearsals have prevented tragedy.

Locks and paper window coverings do not turn classrooms into safe rooms. It is ridiculous to think that a determined shooter would be deterred by either method.

What a lockdown does do is leave teachers and students with no way out. Exiting through a window would be a better option than waiting quietly and hoping not to be discovered.

There is risk in fleeing, but the students of Uvalde who managed to evacuate the building fared better than those who did not.

The sad truth is that short of turning schools into armed camps, there is no easy solution to making schools safer. And putting the onus on the schools detracts from the real problems: the proliferation of deadly assault weapons; the alienation too many young men feel in our society; the poisonous effect of social media in spreading hatred and violence.

So while there is no evidence that lockdown drills saved lives in Texas last week, studies have shown that these exercises cause real psychological harm. They reinforce the idea of school shootings in students' heads and if anything make them feel less safe, while providing little protection against real threats.

So much could be done to protect America's students, starting with sensible gun regulations and support for troubled young people. But it's time we admitted the status quo in school safety is not working.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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