Active shooter. Lockdown. Multioption response drill. None of these terms were really in use 20 years ago. Then Columbine happened, the horrific day when two students entered Columbine High School and shot 26 people, and the next day we let our fear destroy childhood in the U.S.
Right now 39 states require their schools to conduct “lockdown drills” or some sort of active shooter exercise every year. Senate Bill 541, authored by state Senators Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) and Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) make California the 40th.
“SB 541 is needed to ensure all California schools are meeting a basic standard to have annual active school threats training on site in order to be prepared,” Bates said, according to a June Assembly staff report on the bill. “SB 541 will save lives and prepare all students, faculty and parents to know what to do during active threats.”
The notion that SB 451 will “save lives” is repeated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which also supports the bill. “Sadly in recent years our nation has seen several high profile school shooting incidents,” says the OCSD’s statement of support for the bill. “Preventing future incidents of violence on our campuses must be a top priority for policy makers, law enforcement, educators, and parents. Even with the best of efforts and systems in place, we must always be prepared for the worst possibility – an active threat situation on a school campus. Preparation means practice. Students, faculty, and parents must know what to do and what is expected in the event an active shooter or other incident of violence occurs. Your legislation to require these lockdown drills will save lives.”
Here’s what the bill will do: mandate that every public, private, and charter school in the state–from kindergarten to high school–hold a lockdown drill or “multioption response drill” once a year. The former is a drill where the students practice sheltering in their classroom. The latter is more complex, and teaches three main actions, according to the bill: “a) Fleeing the scene if possible; b) If unable to flee, barricading in a room with environmental objects, such as chairs or desks, to prevent the shooter from entering the room; and c) As a last resort, distracting and actively resisting the shooter by throwing objects at or swarming the shooter, or both.” Oh, and that “all school officials [must] consider the emotional impact of the drill on pupils,” though the bill doesn’t define how exactly to do that.
If you have kids under the age of 20, none of this is new or surprising. But here’s something that might be new: though there’s no official opposition to the bill on file, there’s increasing evidence that these drills and exercises do little more than traumatize children.
One of those voices is Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America--a grassroots organization dedicated to stopping gun violence–and one of the most prominent anti-gun activists in the U.S. “While we endorse training for adult staff on how to respond to active shooter situations, given the concerns raised by parents, students, and medical professionals about the impact that lockdown and active shooter drills can have on student development, including the risk for depression and anxiety and the risk for lasting symptoms, our organizations refrain from endorsing training for students and believe schools should consider this impact before conducting live drills with children,” Watts said.
Contrary to the analogy Bates included in her news release on SB 541, lockdown drills are nothing like fire drills. Some lockdown drills use the sounds of gunfire, use pellet guns or even employ adults to race through the school, acting as gunmen might. In late 2018, officials at one Florida school pretended a drill as though it were a real event–even going so far as announcing “This is not a drill” over the PA system–which terrorized kids and their parents. Bates’ analogy puts school shootings on the force-of-nature, what-can-you-do-about-it? shelf along with earthquakes and fires. It tells us that there’s little we can do to prevent school shootings–or any gun violence, really–even though there is actually tons we can do, like restrict the sales of military-style weapons and silencers and address toxic masculinity (more than 90 percent of those who carried out the 95 mass shootings in the U.S. between 1982 and 2017 were men).
Lockdown drills aren’t even really like nuclear war duck-and-cover drills. In the latter, generations of kids were taught to fear another nation, but in lockdown exercises, they’re taught to fear each other. Columbine High, Stoneman Douglas High, Sandy Hook Elementary–in each horrifying massacre students or former students murdered fellow students and their teachers.
In February 2018, James Hamblin of The Atlantic wrote about Ryan Marino, a University of Pittsburgh doctor who went through lockdown drills as a child:
He told me the drills didn’t seem real until he was 12, and a fellow student coughed during one of the drills. “The teacher told us that if this had been real, we would all be dead.”
“That single experience shaped my childhood,” Marino said. “Having to practice and prepare for a peer coming to my school and shooting at me and my friends was something that really changed the overall atmosphere. Looking back, it was a major shift in how the world felt.”
Though 150 children and adults have been killed in school shootings nationwide since Columbine, millions of kids have gone through active shooter training. In fact, a March 2019 Atlantic story by Erika Christakis puts the number at 4.1 million, 220,000 of whom were in kindergarten or pre-school.
“Nearly half of American children have experienced at least one ‘adverse childhood experience,’ a category that includes abuse or neglect; losing a parent to divorce or death; having a parent who is an alcoholic or a victim of domestic violence; or having an immediate family member who is mentally ill or incarcerated,” Christakis wrote. “About 10 percent of children have experienced three or more of these destabilizing situations. And persistent stress, as we are coming to understand, alters the architecture of the growing brain, putting children at increased risk for a host of medical and psychological conditions over their lifetime.”
What’s worse is that we have no way to know if active shooter drills and lockdown exercises are effective at doing what SB 541 proponents are promising: saving lives.
“None of the currently employed school firearm violence prevention methods have empirical evidence to show they actually diminish firearm violence in schools,” researchers James Price and Jagdish Khubchandani concluded in their paper “School Firearm Violence Prevention Polices: Functional or Folly,” published in the July 2019 issue of the journal Violence and Gender. “To the extent that schools adopt ineffective firearm violence prevention measures they are creating a false sense of security.”
After 20 years of teaching kids, some as young as five, what they should or shouldn’t do if someone bursts into their classroom with a gun, we have no idea if any of these exercises and drills actually work. But that doesn’t seem to matter in the case of SB 541, which has bipartisan support and passed the state Senate on May 23. It’s currently headed to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.