Should Students Be Trained to Respond to School Shootings?

New research questions if active shooter training in schools is a good idea.

Posted Jan 13, 2016

While incidents of mass shootings at school have led to widespread alarm and calls for greater security in schools across the United States, how safe are they making students in school?

Despite high-profile shooting incidents such as the Columbine school shooting in 1999, the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, and the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, researchers looking at school shootings over the past two decades argue that the public hysteria over school safety is largely unjustified.   According to a report published in 2000, the actual risk of being killed by violence at school is far lower than the risk of dying elsewhere.  Even though mass shootings have tripled from 2011 to 2014, actual school shootings remain relatively rare.  At least, so far.

Whether or not school shootings are on the increase, the widespread perception remains that schools are unsafe places for students, especially in the United States.   One opinion poll reports that 71 percent of respondents believe that a school shooting in their own community was likely.   Much of the panic over school safety stems from media stories about school shooters such as Adam Lanza, Eric Harris, and Dylan Kleebold as well as the general perception that  schools are ill-prepared to protect students when these tragedies happen.  

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, laws calling for greater security measures for schools were passed in dozens of U.S. states and communities across the country have spent millions of dollars beefing up school security. This includes installing metal detectors, electronic door locks, bullet-proof glass, intruder alarms, and security cameras to keep school grounds under continuous surveillance.  New "zero tolerance" policies have become more common in dealing with students committing various infractions such as bringing a pen knife to school.  School officials are also much more prone to calling in the police and having these students arrested than they have in the past.

But an even more controversial security approach involves training students directly on how to respond to a school shooting.  Some school districts have arranged "live action" training sessions organized by campus security with students as "actors" along with pretend gun shots and fake blood.  One of the most comprehensive new programs available is known as ALICE (Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Escape) in which students are trained to follow a set of guidelines to deal with a shooting situation.  ALICE training is available for K-12 schools and colleges and was developed by a law enforcement officer Greg Crane in the wake of Columbine to boost school safety.   Some of the ALICE training, including one of the steps students are trained to follow,"Counter," is especially controversial since it involves having students "swarm" a gunman to remove the threat, something most law enforcement agencies advise against except as a last resort.   

There are also training videos available designed to train students how to respond in a school shooting situation.  One such video, Shots Fired:  When Lightning Strikes, is a 20-minute training video prepared by the Center for Personal Protection and Safety.   Advertised as a way to "empower people with knowledge and strategies for preventing and surviving an active shooter situation", the video retails for $700 ($1500 for a university license).   

It's hard to say for certain how common active shooter training is or how much colleges and schools are spending to provide it.   Still, one survey carried out soon after the Virginia Tech shooting suggests that over half of all college campuses provide some form of training for "non-safety personnel" (professors, staff, or students).   For colleges that have had a shooting incident in recent years, over 70 percent provide training.   But how effective is this training really?  And is the cost actually justified in an era with shrinking school budgets?  

Even for schools that have provided some form of training, determining whether it actually helps protect staff and students from harm seems debatable   Despite this, hundreds of thousands of students are now being obliged to watch training videos or take part in more comprehensive training on the off-chance that it might work in preventing fatalities.   Even though students already go through emergency drills to teach them to cope with fire or natural disasters, some studies suggest that active shooter training could actually do more harm than good, especially if it increases the fear of being victimized.  

A 2010 study by Robert Kaminski and a team of criminology researchers shows that the increased fear that comes from this kind of traning can affect how willing students are to participate in campus activities in general.  As the authors point out, "instead of making students feel safer about their surroundings, these new policies may, in fact, make students more fearful and less engaged in their college campuses”  Along with the general trauma associated with active shooter training, there is also the very real concern of the copycat effect that might inspire troubled students to imitate previous school shooters.  Could training videos trigger an increase in school shootings?

A new research study published in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management evaluates one popular training video and its psychological impact on a sample of  community college students.  Jillian Peterson of Minnesota's Hamline University and a team of fellow researchers recruited 197 students at a Midwest community college and had them completed a series of questionnaires online.   These questionnaires measured  general depression and anxiety as well as overall fear of school shootings and how prepared they felt they were if a shooting occurred on campus.   They also responded to questions concerning the general effectiveness of different strategies for keeping students safe on campus.   

After completing these questionnaires, the participants were then randomly assigned  to one of two experimental conditions which were completed online.   The first group of 97 participants (the experimental group) watched the video Shots Fired:  When Lightning Strikes while the second group of 100 participants (the control group) watched the PBS Frontline documentary Raising Adam Lanza.  In the first twenty-minute video, actors reenact a school shooting to demonstrate what students should do when it happens.  The second video also deals with a school shooting but is considerably less graphic and is mainly intended to present the subject in  more informational manner.  After watching one of the two videos, participants then completed the same questionnaires as previously to see any changes that occurred. 

Results showed that watching either video made participants feel more prepared for a school shooting but also increased their fear of being victimized.  Women in particular tend to be more afraid of school shootings than men and reported feeling less prepared to respond to them.  Watching the training video increased the level of fear women had about school shootings but didn't have the same impact on men.  Still, both women and men reported feeling more prepared to respond to a school shooting after seeing the training video.  

While this study suggests that training videos can be useful in making students feel better prepared for a school shooting, that is not the same as showing that they actually are prepared.  Also, since this is a one-time study, there is no way to tell how long the benefits of watching a video such as this can last.    Though watching a training video about school shooting can have some benefit in terms of making students more aware, there are also important drawbacks to this kind of training.   

Despite the media hype surrounding shootings, they remain extremely rare.  The chances of dying in a school shooting are still far lower than dying in a car accident, for example.  Providing shooter training for students may also give them a false perception of the level of real danger they face.   Even more controversial is the the question of whether this kind of training should be provided to even younger students, possibly even students in elementary schools. 

So should students receive active shooter training?   Limited school budgets means that the money spent on this kind of training will be taken away from other programs that are potentially more effective.  This includes mental health resources that might help prevent school shootings in the first place.   Identifying and defusing the kind of problems that might lead to students becoming shooters, including bullying and psychiatric issues,  is probably a far more effective approach for keeping children safe. 

Focusing on school shootings while ignoring their cause won't make the problem go away.

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