SALT LAKE CITY — Emily Ross, 16, is a veteran of drills. At school, the sophomore from Marietta, Georgia, has been in lockdown drills, tornado drills, bomb threat drills, fire drills and color-coded drills like “Code Red,” where students practice what to do if someone with a gun tries to shoot them.

Preparing for danger or disaster has become as much a part of American school life as math or reading.

A few days after recent mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, Ross found herself alone in a deserted hallway, separated from classmates on the wrong side of a locked door because she’d been sick in the nurse’s bathroom when the intruder drill started. The scary, surrealistic experience made her realize that during a real event, the happenstance of where she is could leave her out in the open and possibly wounded or killed.

She knew it was a drill, but she felt panicked.

“This is warping me. I never feel safe,” she wrote afterward of the impact of having to practice, practice, practice for an unlikely but horrifying attack. Her essay was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Drills prepare kids and teachers for unlikely events, while reminding them that “unlikely” doesn’t mean terrible things can’t happen, Ross told the Deseret News. “Drills make me feel safe — and also make me feel extremely powerless.”

Ross is older than many children who participate in drills designed to help them handle horror. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has said “virtually all” schools participate in lockdown drills where students hunker down — hopefully out of sight and silent so they won’t be found by an armed assailant. The Washington Post reported U.S. schools had at least 6,200 lockdown drills during the 2017-2018 school year, involving more than 4 million students. Students also sometimes were in lockout, where no one can enter or leave the school, but activities inside are not disrupted.

How students react depends largely on their age and how well schools and parents prepare them for drills. While there is a need to teach children what to do in the unlikely event someone storms their school with a weapon, staging drills “requires planning and careful consideration,” said Cathy Kennedy-Paine, who leads the crisis response team for the National Association of School Psychologists.

“We need to remember that children are at different developmental stages and what is appropriate for one age is potentially highly inappropriate for another age,” said Dr. Laurel Williams, associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital.

The younger a child is, the less likely he or she is to realize an intruder is not actually preying on students or to distinguish between what’s happening now and what might occur in the future, she warned.

Childhood anxiety disorders are very real for students, who can be triggered by intruder and other drills. Even older kids, not adequately prepared, can suffer harm.

Members of local Utah County police agencies go through training during an active shooter drill on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah Tuesday Dec. 17, 2013. | Utah Valley University Marketing

Drill design

The National Association of School Psychologists outlines what it considers best practice for helping kids understand and cope with danger. It focuses not only on drills but also on how to address unsettling events. Talking and listening are important before and after a drill, including an explanation of why practice is needed.

Schools used to routinely hold surprise drills, but most now warn students and parents a drill is coming to prepare them mentally and reduce panic. Ideally, parents and teachers each talk about the purpose of the drills, while emphasizing schools are safe and students are practicing for something that’s unlikely to happen.

Regarding unanticipated drills, “we found that was more anxiety-causing than helpful,” said BJ Weller, Salt Lake County’s Canyons School District director of responsive services.

Canyons holds monthly drills for emergency situations (lockdown, shelter-in-place, fire, bomb threat, etc.), but it does not hold regular active-shooter drills. 

Adults are told to talk to the kids at a level appropriate for their ages, listen and help them find words to express their feelings and fears. Children must be reassured they are safe but reminded that knowing safety procedures is good: We lock doors at home to keep us safe. We practice safety at school.

The association guidelines say drill planning should consider whether students have disabilities that can make it harder to get out of harm’s way or follow instructions or that may increase distress. Those running the drills ought to know who might be particularly traumatized for various reasons, including having witnessed or survived violence. Language barriers need to be addressed because parents and students should know a drill is coming and why and be able to ask questions and mentally prepare.

Most experts discourage using a pretend assailant in a drill. If such a drill design is used, “that must never be a surprise,” according to the association. The group also recommends having mental health experts on hand in case anyone has a traumatic response to the drill.

Practicing for hazards has evolved. The 2007 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education counseled drills involving lockdown for an intruder threat. In 2013, it expanded options to include run, hide or fight. Most intruder drills now are modeled on ALICE Training, a widely accepted program designed by a police officer whose wife was a grade-school teacher. ALICE stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.

Matching message to age

By their nature, drills create anxiety. Especially with young kids, practicing for the unthinkable should be kept simple and use familiar language, said Kennedy-Paine.

“We talk about stranger danger, a concept a lot of young people know from their parents. I like to make that connection,” she said. “There’s a stranger in school and we want to be safe. The No. 1 thing I tell young people is follow the direction of the adults.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network says preschool-age and young grade school kids can feel helpless and uncertain; they may struggle sorting out what’s real or knowing when an event is over. Nor will they all be able to describe their feelings. They may be fearful and lose previously gained developmental skills.

Fear and sadness can overwhelm school-age children, who become trapped in a loop of reliving what they did and didn’t do during an event. They may not sleep well or may struggle to concentrate.

Weller said schools can help kids understand how their brains work, which helps them respond to stress. For the youngest students, he describes “downstairs brain.” That version of the brain wants to keep kids safe and protect them, but when the child is scared or stressed, it overloads, reacting like Marvel’s Hulk, smashing things instead of thinking through them.

“What the drills do is help us be able to think when a situation happens so we’re not in the downstairs brain or running and hiding like animals,” Weller said.

Williams doesn’t believe children 8 and younger should participate in drills, though they need to be part of age-appropriate safety discussions and preparations. Simulated danger — like someone rattling doorknobs — is especially bad because it’s hard at that age to figure out what’s real. “Children can become very anxious and fearful about everything because in their minds this has in fact happened and could happen at any time,” she said.

In this Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, file photo, Angie Bailey reaches to hug her daughter, Danielle, a student, as they are reunited following a shooting incident at Mueller Park Junior High School in Bountiful. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

Attacks on schools are uncommon, but little kids struggle to tell the difference between what is likely and unlikely. Children are much more apt to be killed by someone they know than die in a mass shooting, but society doesn’t try to practice that. Williams favors modeling school safety after airlines that point out safety features of the aircraft and what to do without going into graphic detail about what might occur. “People know that in the unlikely event there’s a change in cabin pressure, the masks drop. We all know the drill by heart, but we don’t have horrifying images to go with it,” she said.

Adolescents have their own reactions and may feel vulnerable, then react with shame to those very feelings, the network said. They can withdraw. Distress may manifest as being accident-prone or engaging in risky behaviors.

Mental Health America’s Colorado chapter tells adults to validate a child’s feeling and never brush off a child’s concern. Adults should watch for behaviors indicating a child struggles, such as not wanting to go to school after an unsettling event or going backward developmentally, maybe wetting the bed or refusing to sleep alone.

Do’s and don’ts for responsible school drills

  • Do speak to children at age-appropriate levels about potential dangers.
  • Do explain that drills are for safety, like wearing seatbelts or locking doors.
  • Do consider special challenges some children may face, including trauma history or language barriers.
  • Do watch for signs a student is struggling after a drill, such as trouble sleeping or concentrating, withdrawal, or engaging in risky behaviors.
  • Don’t have someone pretend to attack students.
  • Don’t have surprise drills without discussion or warning. Make sure students know it’s a drill, not an active shooter.

It helps when parents talk honestly about their own feelings so children know they’re not trying to deal with fear alone. A parent’s response to trauma influences how well a child moves past it, said Williams. When parents are distraught and stuck, so are kids. Some parents may need professional help with their own reactions before they can help their children.

Williams said schools should work at least as hard on helping kids build social connections as they work on preparedness drills. Without those connections, drills lead children to conclude the world is frightening and wants to hurt them. Studies show feeling connected, on the other hand, reduces bullying, boosts academic performance and helps student mental health.

Prioritizing the right mindset

This year, for the first time, all elementary schools in the Canyons School District have a mental health counselor. The number of mental health specialists in schools has improved nationwide, though many more are needed.

Canyons counselors chime in on the drills, said Weller. “The theme for my department is make sure students are safe, healthy and ready to learn.” While drills are driven largely by need for physical safety, adults must heed psychological safety, too, he said.

“With drills, we know that the more predictable we can be, the easier it is for those who suffer anxiety or have a trauma background,” said Weller. Predictability reduces the emotional exertion students spend “trying to figure out what’s happening.”

The biggest change overall is how drills are communicated to students and families. Teachers talk through drills beforehand with young students, helping them understand what will happen and why. That helps mitigate psychological impacts, Weller said.

School staff try not to exaggerate dangers, while preparing kids for the possibility. Weller’s only half-joking when he says parents should practice putting their cell phones away when they pull into school drop-off and pick-up zones. Distracted parent drivers are dangerous to kids, and kids are more likely to encounter them than shooters.

But no matter how carefully teachers, parents and staff try to minimize the impact of drills, students are changed by them, said Ross. At 16, she knows someone could harm her at school. She and her friends know they must be careful what they say about certain topics, too.

Officials respond to an incident at Mueller Park Junior High School in Bountiful on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

Recently, running to catch a ride with a friend and wanting to sit in the front seat, she yelled “Shotgun!” Several students turned toward her with stricken expressions.

“There’s a chance of saying something wrong and having everybody think you’re a school shooter,” she said.

She wishes schools didn’t need drills.

“It’s important to do tornado and fire drills and Code Red drills. But having this dark shadow in our heads whispering there’s going to be a school shooting and you’re going to get hurt and not being safe in a place made of cinder blocks; it’s scary. It really just shows how vulnerable life can be,” said Ross.