What Are the Psychological Effects of ‘Active-Shooter Drills’?

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The psychological effects of realistic simulations could be dangerous.

exopixel / shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Derkatch has an 11-year-old daughter who is in the sixth grade. In her school, they’ve done lockdown drills, but the drills are the sort that are generalizable to any emergency. The teachers are very clear that it’s just a drill, and they lock the doors, and kids stay in their seats. There’s no hiding or barricading, as many schools in the United States now require.

If you were to move to the United States, I asked Derkatch, would you want your daughter going through these sorts of drills?

“No,” she said. “But I wouldn’t move to the United States. And guns are the reason why. Guns and health care.”

The two are, of course, now intertwined. President Trump and many other Republicans have a penchant for blaming “mental illness” for mass shootings-even though most shooters have no known or diagnosable mental illness. People who are mentally ill are much more likely to be victims than murderers. Most are rather, like the shooter in Parkland, described as isolated, troubled, angry, resentful men and boys. Many have a history of childhood trauma, like being abused or neglected. It is rare that a shooter has come up in an environment with multiple adults on whom they could rely-where they felt safe and secure.

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A sense of safety and security in childhood is integrally tied to mental and physical health later in life-as well as emotional wellbeing, and the formation of the coping mechanisms that allow a person to deal with later adversity in ways that do not involve killing. It is this sense that can be undermined sometimes even by the best of intentions.

“Kids perceive the world generally as a bit of a dangerous place now because of how they tend to be closely supervised at almost all times,” said Derkatch. “If you look at the proposals in the United States, it sounds like they’re trying to make schools an awful lot like prisons, with monitored perimeters and armed guards and possibly armed teachers. You could extrapolate from the experiences of kids living in potentially violent situations, where you never know what’s going to happen. That does have a profound impact on kids.”

“I will never be able to explain it well, but losing a feeling of safety as a child, especially at school, is a major thing,” said Marino, the emergency physician who was terrified to cough. “Anyone who has not gone through school with active-shooter drills can never understand what it feels like.”

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