When Schools Simulate Mass Shootings

K-12 students are now learning how to prepare for trauma. But at what cost?

Four days after the Columbine High School shooting, thirteen roses were placed on the fence to represent each of lives lost. (AP/ Eric Gay / The Atlantic)

On April 9th, 2009, I saw the bodies of my fellow classmates lying lifeless and bloodied in my high school parking lot. One was visible through the broken windshield of an overturned Jeep. Four others were flung haphazardly across the concrete, each waiting for their turn on a stretcher.

The memory of that day is clear. It would be life-altering—had it been real.

"At some point, I stopped pretending and I started actually feeling afraid of what was happening," Audrey White, one of the sole crash "survivors" from that day, said. "Even though I knew it was fake, it still, in the moment, felt traumatizing."

Audrey played the leading role in "Shattered Dreams," a program that seeks to educate students on the perils of drunk driving. Played out in high schools throughout Texas, the stunt collision is a mixture of morbid morality and tragic realism. It’s the way Michael Bay would shoot a PSA: a visceral reenactment not for the faint of heart, with fake blood, mournful eulogies, and a CareFlight helicopter adding to the selection of props on set.

It is tragedy porn, in many respects, but it entails much more than extracurricular entertainment. As Zach Zoda, my former classmate and Shattered Dreams actor, recalled, "I remember my dad describing what it felt like to watch the paramedics carefully transfer my body onto the stretcher."

Looking back, my high school classes blur, but I remember Shattered Dreams. That’s because it did its job—it made me never forget. And yet, I still question to this day what purpose that memory served. Why act out traumatic events that may never occur?

Prevention, I keep hearing. Being ready when, and if, tragedy hits. The U.S. has become obsessed with rehearsing crises as a means of preventing future mistakes. Only now, the practice is becoming standardized protocol. And this new reality, one where false memories prime us to the idea that no place is truly safe, is exemplified by active shooter drills popping up in schools around the country.

Proponents argue the more realistic the drill is, the less likely students are to feel and act unprepared in a true scenario. Yet a growing number of parents and psychologists argue that this immersive approach in the country’s schools isn’t justified by worthy statistics. After all, the chance of any student dying in a school-related shooting is one in 2.5 million.

So, while the debate over how far is too far remains fragile ground, what continues to be strikingly underreported is that glaring, albeit obvious, question: What does the trauma curriculum actually teach?

* * *

On the night of April 20th, 1999, Melissa Reeves rushed to the emergency room waiting area of a local hospital in Colorado. She and her fellow school psychologists were tasked with an unforeseen responsibility: to comfort students who had escaped Columbine High School, where, only hours before, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting spree, killing 13 people. It was a time when the FBI had no definition for "active shooter" events, nor any way of tracking them, and Reeves was experiencing that lack of cohesion firsthand.

"We had no idea what we were doing. We basically were told to show up. The kids didn’t know us. We didn’t know them," Reeves said. "We walked out of there saying, 'This is unacceptable.'"

The experience inspired Reeves to develop PREPaRE, a two-day workshop that teaches students how to handle trauma before and after a school tragedy. The comprehensive curriculum also develops a crisis-response plan for administrators, faculty, and mental-health professionals—something Reeves didn’t have at her disposal the night of Columbine. Today, as the chair of the National Association of School Psychologist’s School Safety and Crisis Response Committee, Reeves believes striking a balance between physical- and psychological-focused efforts is critical for long-term impact, rather than having districts spend thousands of dollars to turn schools into New Age bunkers.

Many schools have, nonetheless, taken that latter approach. In Minnesota, the Rocori School District, still recovering from a fatal school shooting in 2003, spent upwards of $25,000 on bulletproof whiteboards. Meanwhile, in Texas, Camey Elementary School, which has never experienced a shooting, recently spent $21.5 million rebuilding a facility with bulletproof glass on the front doors, 50 security cameras, and a panic button installed inside the main office. This past June, even bulletproof blankets made their way into naptime defense budgets.

"They think that changing locks or adding a metal detector is all of a sudden going to make a school safe," Reeves said. "Do you know what we could do with $10-$25,000 in preventative programming?"

Unfortunately, there’s still no step-by-step handbook for tragedy prevention, especially for active-shooter events. Federal code demands that each school have a crisis-response plan, but it doesn’t stipulate what that plan should entail. In other words, how students should react in the event of an armed intruder is left up to the whims of local school districts and state officials, creating a science fair of social experiments with no definitive evidence as to which one works best.

Yet, while these pet projects diverge in practice, they agree on one basic premise: Schools can’t prepare for the unexpected, but they should certainly try. Over 20 states require schools to have some sort of lockdown procedure in place—a method that has dominated the national conversation about campus safety since Columbine. Blinds are shut, doors are locked, and all students duck and cover in Cold War-era fashion. But six states (Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas, and New Jersey) have taken lockdown to the next level; they mandate specific active-shooter drills in which armed police officers often bust down classroom doors, fake guns fully loaded. And that’s just on paper. Even if certain states do not mandate active-shooter drills, local districts can still sample tactics that higher-level policymakers may consider too extreme.

This is where the ALICE Training Institute comes in.

"He has gotten the gun out of his backpack. He is standing right there. He maybe already has a casualty," Lisa Crane, the co-founder of ALICE, said, hypothetically. "So, you’ve got to do something at that point."

As a former elementary school teacher, Crane started ALICE in 2001 with her husband, Greg, who was serving as a SWAT-team leader training police officers after Columbine. ALICE—which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate—is billed as the nation’s first active shooter response program, which has, according to Crane, trained 22 million people to use a menu of SWAT-like defense tactics in the event of an armed assault.

The "something" Crane was referring to can include anything from throwing objects at a shooter’s head to ambushing the assailant in a dog pile—two crucial strategies that, Crane explained, can impair the shooter’s sight and stance. And it doesn’t matter what you throw: This past January, one middle school in Alabama sent a letter home to parents in advance of ALICE training telling them to equip each of their children with a can of food. "Our mission has been [that] there should never be an American who doesn’t know what to do when they’re under fire," Crane said.

Simulation drills are beneficial for students, she argues, because they take them away from playing a strictly passive observer. So although students practice the lockdown strategy during ALICE training sessions, the program often incorporates materials like Airsoft guns and air horns to replicate the sound of gun shots emerging from a hallway. "They can hear the air horn getting closer, which brings up their anxiety level," Crane said. But, she added, "We leave it up to local autonomy whether they want to get students involved [in those drills]."

Yet, that’s assuming school officials are even privy to what’s going on. Certain schools in states including Oregon, New Jersey, and Florida have started implementing unannounced active-shooter drills on the grounds that they better prepare kids for surprise attacks. Forget what you’ve learned about fake blood and Airsoft props on-site—in these schools, the word "drill" is a frightening misnomer; neither students nor faculty are given any advanced notice of them.

Last November, a middle school in Florida made headlines after students believed an unannounced drill, in which two gunmen barreled down the school’s hallway with a pistol and AR-15, was real. Turns out the shooters were local police officers yelling, "This is a drill!"—but that didn’t stop many students from texting their parents hysterically, telling them they feared for their lives.

Indeed, in the digital age, panic can spread quicker than ever before. "All I knew was that my friends were texting me, ‘Are you okay?’ Everyone was freaking out," Emma Joy, a freshman at Columbia High School in New Jersey, told me. "Then I saw tweets and Snapchats of police with bulletproof vests entering my building."

But for 14-year-old Joy, the event described was not a surprise drill, nor an active shooter situation. Instead, local law enforcement had issued a "code red" emergency protocol after receiving reports of a student carrying a suspected weapon. That weapon turned out to be brass knuckles, and the student was soon arrested—but still, according to Joy, everyone reacted as if they were in the midst of an active shooter situation. "Some of my friends in the auditorium were put in a stage door closet. Other people were stuck in cabinets or the bathroom," Joy continued. "They prepare us, but it’s nothing like the actual scenario."

Because of her students’ reactions, Columbia High School Principal Elizabeth Aaron does not intend to rehearse this scene for the sake of theatrics. But that may not be up to her. The state of New Jersey can legally issue unannounced drills, the intention being that educators are kept on their toes—even if the students are left reeling. And that puts Aaron in somewhat of a conundrum: "All you think about as a principal is what the students will be feeling," whether it’s a drill or the dreaded alternative.

* * *

Last January, Mason Campbell, age 12, opened fire in his school gym in New Mexico, severely wounding two students before surrendering his gun. Then, that May, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people in a shooting spree near the University of California, Santa Barbara. A few months later in Washington, 15-year-old Jaylen Fryberg shot five of his fellow students before killing himself in a school cafeteria. The list goes on: Bryan Oliver, 16; Jared Padgett, 15; Jose Reyes, 12.

Since the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012—in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed—there have been an estimated 107 shootings on U.S. school property, and counting. That’s an average of nearly one a week, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, an advocacy group working to end gun violence. Additionally, of the 40 incidents in K-12 schools analyzed by the same group, 70 percent were committed by minors.

The availability of these statistics reflect a larger shift in America’s approach to school shootings. For the first time, they are meticulously tracked. Sandy Hook was pivotal in that it prompted everyone from concerned parents to federal government agencies to finally take action. Thirteen years after Columbine, policymakers and the public started treating active-shooter events as an epidemic rather than a series of isolated incidents dotting the nation. It was also during this time that the U.S. Department of Education first endorsed the need for students to "incapacitate the shooter," if the situation seemed dire.

That’s when defense strategies started to change. Whereas students were once encouraged to lock down in classrooms, they’re now being told that actively responding is an option. The Department of Homeland Security came up with "Run, Hide, Fight" shortly after the July 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which claimed 12 lives. And the FBI launched its catchphrase "Avoid, Deny, Defend" in 2013, adopting its slogan from a program known as ALERRT, or Advanced Law Enforcement and Rapid Response Training Center, which is housed at Texas State University.

"We’re not a big fan of the word ‘hide’ at ALERRT because it’s passive," said Pete Blair, who oversees the center, cautioning schools against using lockdown as the only policy. "What do you do if the active shooter occurs during the school assembly? Or in the cafeteria? What are people in the room where the attack starts supposed to do?" Chilling security footage from Columbine underlines Blair’s point. The teenage shooters can be seen walking back-and-forth into the cafeteria and library, mercilessly pointing their guns at classmates while hundreds of students flee in any viable direction. There is no hope of locking down total chaos.

And herein lies the crux of the trauma curriculum. What should students do if they are, without warning, confronted face-to-face with a shooter? According to Blair, the answer is simple: Don’t freeze.

A recent report by Police Executive Research Forum that compiled ALERRT data on 84 incidents between 2000 and 2010 found that the shooter in "case after case" attacked individuals who "froze in place or attempted to play dead." Blair pointed to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting as an example of how important it can be for civilians to act deliberately, rather than impulsively. In Room 206, the first classroom attacked, students took no defensive action. Blair argues this is what made the Room-206 scenario such a bloodbath compared to what happened in the neighboring Room 207: "Room 207 figured out, ‘This is bad. We have to keep this guy from coming back in.’ They put their hands and feet up against the door to keep it shut. Whereas, in Room 206, he came back and shot the place up two or more times."

The case study echoes what this new breed of simulation drills aims to teach: Act rather than react. According to this logic, if freezing truly does hinder a victim’s chance of survival, then humans should train to avoid that impulse.

I asked Joseph LeDoux, a highly-regarded neuroscientist at New York University, what might be the most useful strategy for teaching students to act. While it is possible to change how humans instinctually freeze, LeDoux explained, the most effective route for learning may also be the most traumatic. "The introduction of surprise is probably a very useful tactic, because it means the brain has to learn each time students go through the drill," he said. "When your expectations are violated, then there’s novel information and that’s where you learn. If there’s no violation of expectation, no learning takes place."

Put simply, if humans know a drill is coming, it’s unlikely they’ll learn much from it. However, while scaring students senseless might make them more equipped to handle an emergency, LeDoux added, the degree to which people are affected by the trauma, in real life or in a simulation, depends upon their preexisting conditions. Everyone reacts differently to trauma.

For individuals struggling to recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, for example, reliving memories of high stress and fear can trigger unwelcome flashbacks. As a result, students who fit into this category run the risk of re-experiencing symptoms when confronted with simulation drills firsthand. School psychologists argue that the cost of unearthing terrible memories outweighs the potential benefit of these practices—not to mention the rare chance that someone in the school is carrying a concealed weapon and decides to act defensively. A drill to prepare for tragedy could turn into a tragedy itself.

But this country has grown intimately familiar with school shootings. The 107 incidents since Sandy Hook tend to blur over time. Yet, the attacks themselves—and Americans’ subsequent responses—are increasingly violent. Indeed, gun deaths are projected to surpass automobile deaths this year for the first time in decades. And high-impact active shooter drills, some of which more closely resemble a botched FBI raid into arts and crafts, are becoming a new norm—even if that means instilling trauma in the classroom, and teaching death before graduation.

"We go on living as if we’re never going to die," said Alain Brunet, a McGill University professor who specializes in PTSD. "Trauma is an encounter with death."

Shattered Dreams was my encounter. It showed the quick and brutal nature of something few Americans expect to experience, thrusting its possibility into focus. Today, the same can be said for the thousands of students who are rehearsing the reality of a school shooting. And something about that is so terrifying.

When I called my principal Brad Hunt six years later, I asked him why my classmates and I were subjected to the trauma curriculum. What was the point of it all? His answer was simple: "If it made a difference in even saving one kid, it’s worth it."