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How schools are teaching our kids to be prepared for active shooters
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Zack Marley, school resource officer at West Hall High School, takes a position at the front of the school moments before students leave for the day Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. - photo by Scott Rogers

In a Level 3 lockdown drill in local schools, students and teachers run into classrooms to give the impression of a quiet, deserted building.  

Elizabeth Burnette’s daughters know that “in case someone wants to come in and kill us, we need to know to hide under the teachers desk,” Burnette said, relaying the words of her girls, who attend a Gainesville elementary school. 

Burnette said the days following lockdown drills prove disruptive for her children. 

“We spend a lot of time consoling them and reminding them that school is actually a safe place for them where they will learn and make friends,” Burnette said. 

While she has no issue with the drills themselves, Burnette said she has a problem with the fact they’re needed. 

The Hall County and Gainesville school systems are required by the state to do these drills, preparing for the potential that an active shooter enters the premises. The drills build a stronger awareness among students and teachers of what to do.

But the drills themselves can be a traumatic for some. 

At home, Burnette’s 8-year-old and 6-year-old have voiced fears about an active shooter coming into their school. 

During one drill, Burnette said her 8-year-old forgot the school’s staff members would come and knock on the classroom doors while the teachers and students were hiding.

“She thought at that moment that it was real and she started crying,” Burnette said.

How drills may affect children

Kristen Green, owner and director of Chattahoochee Child Psychology Services LLC in Gainesville, said it’s hard to know the type of long-term psychological impact lockdowns might have.

As a board certified clinical child and adolescent psychologist, Green has talked with children who have been negatively affected by bomb threats at school. In the case of an active shooter drill, she said it can be more frightening. 

“I would say don’t do them,” Green said. “It’s a sad situation that we even have to talk about it.”

Green said holding lockdown drills tells kids that there is something to be afraid of in their school environment. 

She said the drills run a significant risk of retraumatizing children who have already dealt with trauma and violence.  

“This is really a low-frequency event, and by preparing for it, you’re making it seem like it's something that happens more frequently than it does,” Green said. “For some kids it’s going to lead to a significant shift in their worldview.”

The FBI reports a handful of incidents each year in a list available on its website that details active shooter incidents 2000-2018. It lists five incidents at schools in 2018 resulting in 29 killed and 52 wounded. 

Of the 250 active shooter incidents it reports between 2000 and 2017, 37, or 14.8%, were at a K-12 school.

To help put into perspective the rarity of an active shooter entering a school, Marshall Bruner, psychologist and clinical director of Center Point in Gainesville, recommends teachers use words like, “this is very unlikely” when talking about the drills. 

Bruner said he’s unaware of information proving lockdown drills can be damaging to a child’s mental health. He said growing up with tornado and fire drills, he doesn’t remember any of his fellow students becoming overly worried. 

“There is a possibility that it could be somehow distressing to a child, but I do think there’s a good explanation that this is the drill,” Bruner said. “The school personnel, or SROs, follow a standard protocol that should be able to avoid undue stress.”

If a parent or guardian’s child does show signs of distress following a drill, he encourages them to seek help from a mental health specialist. 

How drills are done

Andy Betancourt, Hall’s safety and security assistant, said the state provides guidelines and a schedule for lockdown drills. 

While Level 3 involves circumstances like an active shooter walking through a school, 

Level 2 entails situations like an angry parent storming into the school. Level 1 includes something that has happened outside of the school like a robbery next door. 

Betancourt said the state requires the district have a certain amount of drills, including lockdowns and fire and severe weather drills, every month in the school year. 

Adrian Niles, Gainesville City Schools’ chief operations officer, said he mixes up the drills every month, never holding them on the same day as another school. 

The staff and faculty are notified about the drill that day but not about the exact time. Niles said the drills aren’t publicized to students so they will take the situation seriously. 

Betancourt, who worked as a crime scene investigator for the Miami Police Department for 30 years, said the school system’s drills are a team effort with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office school resource officers. He said they are the ones who conduct the lockdown training.

For the past couple of years, the system has offered lockdown training for all schools. 

When new teachers come on board, they experience all of the levels of a lockdown. 

At the end of the training, Betancourt said teachers go into their classrooms and the student resource officers walk around the halls, shooting off blanks. This is done when no kids are in school. He said it gives teachers a better idea of what a gunshot sounds like in the building.

During his three years as Hall’s safety and security assistant, Betancourt said only one parent has contacted him with concerns about the lockdown drills.

Like all schools in the districts, Wesley Roach, principal at Gainesville’s Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy, said his school takes every measure to ensure faculty and staff are ready for emergencies. 

Holding a lockdown drill may look slightly different in an elementary school, compared to a high school. 

Roach said his staff prepares Enota’s students for the practice and takes into consideration their age and what’s appropriate to say to a 6-year-old, as opposed to a 16-year-old high schooler. 

“We certainly try to respect our students when we have this kind of practice, explaining to them in words that are appropriate for those children and not something that would cause undue panic and anxiety,” he said.

Betancourt said holding drills throughout the school year develops muscle memory in children. If a dangerous situation were to arise, they have a higher chance of knowing how to respond instead of freezing up from fear. 

“It’s not only helping us be more prepared, it’s helping us to be more actively engaged,” Niles said. “We take the safety of our students, faculty and staff very seriously. To me, it’s job No. 1 that everyone arrives and returns home safely, every single day.”

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