By Julio Nohara, used with permission
Source: By Julio Nohara, used with permission

Recently, a friend contacted me to say that her daughter, a first grader, had come home from school talking about the active shooter training that day.  The child was concerned and she continued to be concerned that evening when her worry prevented her from going to sleep as usual.  My friend had questions, which I think every parent has, about the school’s programming and how to address her child’s concern.  

Over the last 20 years, with increased media coverage of school shootings, parents, teachers, and children have become aware that, in rare instances, active shooters enter schools. However, compared with other activities in which children engage, the actual risk of harm from a school shooter is remarkably low; car accidents and drowning are much more likely.

Schools, in an attempt to increase student safety and to calm the fears of parents, have responded. In addition to placing security persons in the schools (School Resource Officers), most schools have locked doors that require authentication to enter the building. Following the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook, concerned parents have spearheaded efforts to redesign schools for greater safety. 

The National Institute of Justice, through the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative (CSSI) funds research on improving school safety and has issued guidelines, as have the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers for active shooter training in schools. The consensus is that school staff should be well prepared and well trained. Parents should be informed if student training is to occur, and school staff should be vigilant for signs of distress among students. 

There is disagreement, however, on the best type of training to provide. The Run—Hide—Fight model used for campuses and workplaces has been applied to schools, with students learning to Run and Hide, while adults can learn to Fight.  The shelter in place model, following the lead of ALICE training, teaches students to hide quietly.

Much has been written about active shooter events and how to address them; less has been written on the response of children to the training they receive in school. A focus on something, emphasizing its catastrophic aspects, while encouraging inaction, may heighten a child’s worries. 

As with many things, the role of educators and parents is to emphasize that the adults can handle the situation and that children should follow instructions to increase their safety.

Stephen Sondheim poses this question in Into the Woods:

How do you say it will all be alright
When 
you know that it mightn't be true?

Is the primary role of parenting to convince ourselves so that we can convince our children? Sometimes it is, and sometimes we have to find a better answer. 

In the case of school shootings, a better answer would include finding a better way to restrict access to the means by which the shootings are carried out: guns, usually semi-automatic weapons. 

At this point in the discussion, some may say that we can’t have this discussion.  But if the cost of not addressing a part of the problem that could reduce the problem is that many of our children become stressed and carry around additional worry, is that an acceptable tradeoff? 

In Australia, in 1996, there was a mass shooting in which 35 people were killed.  That same year, the Australian Parliament passed the national firearms agreement, a comprehensive nationwide ban on semiautomatic and self-loading rifles and shotguns. To obtain a license, a prospective gun owner must apply, state a reason for owning the gun other than self-defense, take a safety course, and wait 28 days.  In the subsequent 20 years (through 2016), there have been no mass shootings, including in schools, in Australia.  

We can do better, for our children, and we must do better for ourselves. If we do not, responding to Sondheim’s question is impossible.  

Tips for Parents:

  • Stay calm and listen carefully to your child. 
  • Look for opportunities to reassure, based on low frequency of occurrence.
  • Address fear, if any, by stressing that adults will give instructions that should be followed.
  • For your own peace of mind, seek out opportunities to be active in solutions.

References

Bodenner, C.  (2016, January 8).  How Australia eliminated mass shootings.  The Atlantic.  Retrieved from  https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/01/port-arthur/422997/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017).  CDC 24/7: Saving Lives, Protecting People.  Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/LeadingCauses.html 

Wahlquist, C. (2016, March 14).  It took one massacre: How Australia embraced gun control after Port Arthur.  The Guardian.  Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/15/it-took-one-massacre-how-australia-made-gun-control-happen-after-port-arthur  

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