Editor’s Note: Coming into the 2022-23 school year, The Dispatch spoke with public school parents, teachers and staff, as well as law enforcement and other sources, about how districts prepare for active shooter situations. Training for students and staff is explored in this second of a multi-part series.
In a drill that shocked employees across schools in the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District in 2019, school officers fired blanks in the hallways while teachers were told to practice safety protocols in their classrooms.
Though teachers were given a heads up about the drill and that blanks would be fired, for some it was a jarring experience to have the sound of gunshots ring throughout their place of work. Since then, the district has not had a drill of that sort, but it is not completely off the table to have another in the future, the SOCSD Public Information Officer Nicole Thomas said.
Teachers and staff members were unable to opt out of that 2019 training, though some tried. Some staff members with anxiety did not handle the training well. One SOCSD employee who spoke with The Dispatch on the condition of anonymity due to job security said such realistic training does more harm for employees than good.
“When they do these active shooter trainings where they bring in the blanks and have people running up and down the hall and shouting, and trying to recreate (the environment of a school shooting), I do not find those to be effective,” the SOCSD employee said. “The one we went through before COVID, we were told it was mandated by the state. It was mildly traumatic, and I know I’m not the only one who felt that way.”
Chief school resource officer for SOCSD Sammy Shumaker said the real-world training scenarios prepare teachers and staff for the unthinkable.
“(The trainings with blanks being fired) present the reality of school shootings because we recognize that, believe it or not, there are some people who’ve never been around weapons, who’ve never been that up close to guns being fired,” Shumaker said. “It gives them the reality of the sound of that going off inside a building and introducing other senses like smelling the (gunpowder) from the shot. … We also don’t want their first time to hear gunshots and smell gunfire to be when things go wrong.”
Shumaker does recognize the toll the trainings take on civilian staff but said the district will continue with those types of drills in the future because it allows employees to understand what is happening in a controlled environment.
“Of course these trainings aren’t ones that anyone looks forward to doing,” Shumaker said. “But at the same time, they accept it, they learn. … We’ve seen some pretty high emotions behind that training and during that training. During our pre-training briefings, we try to reassure them that this is just training because this is unfortunately the time we live in.”
However, in other districts, faculty and staff receive standard training that does not include blank rounds being fired inside a school.
Columbus Municipal School District chief school resource officer Natashea Coleman-Brown said the training for staff happens at the same time there are students in the building, and the CMSD SROs do not fire blanks.
“Each district has to go and see what’s in the comfort level of the personnel they’re servicing,” Brown said. “We do a lot of scenarios, and there are things that you can simulate as a gunshot like clapping of the hands. As long as you’re instructing (civilian personnel) that this is what is happening in a scenario and then seeing how they respond. There are other methods you can use to simulate that. … There’s no one size fits all when it comes to training, though.”
So far there is no definitive answer on whether there is a benefit or not for teachers of having this type of training, associate professor and director of the clinical Ph.D. program of the Mississippi State University Department of Psychology Michael Nadorff told The Dispatch.
There is research being done on the effects drills have on students and school employees, but it is still in the early stages. Early research shows that active shooter drills can negatively impact stress, anxiety and depression symptoms in students.
“You’re going to have a certain proportion of your population that’s going to potentially relive a traumatic event. We know there are some costs. The question is the benefit, and certainly there are some benefits, but I don’t think we fully know the magnitude of each,” Nadorff said
The reality that a shooting could happen any time anywhere isn’t one lost on teachers, and the ones who spoke to The Dispatch said they understand why the drills happen.
Training for teachers
Each school year teachers are trained by the SROs within their districts on the proper protocols for what to do should a shooter enter the school, according to Shumaker and CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat.
The teaching is called Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events, or CRASE, and it was developed in 2004 by doctoral students at the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University.
Lead ALERRT instructor Randy Knight spoke with The Dispatch about the training civilians receive and the importance of it. Knight, outside of his work with ALERRT, goes around the country teaching non-law enforcement personnel, like teachers, how to respond to active shooters.
The training is based off the avoid, deny, defend (ADD) strategy where non-law enforcement civilians are taught to defend themselves against active shooters.
“We need to make people realize … we need to make people look at how we harden targets,” Knight said. “We need to look at how can we make our schools safer, how can we make our businesses safer, and that’s through training, through education.”
Staff and faculty in SOCSD, Columbus Municipal School District and Lowndes County School District receive the same CRASE training from the SROs and sometimes other local law enforcement.
Teachers, however, don’t feel like there is just one solution to fixing the problem, and they are worried about the effectiveness of the active shooter drills.
“I may not be impressed with Starkville’s response, but I can’t imagine there are a lot of schools that are doing things differently mostly because this is the package they’re being sold,” the SOCSD employee said. “This is what is being told to educational leaders on how to protect their schools.”
Effect on students
One LCSD employee, who spoke with The Dispatch on condition of anonymity for job security, said they worry students have become desensitized to the drills because it has been such an ingrained part of their school experience.
“I don’t think, with my students, that it scares them that much, because it’s a part of their culture,” the LCSD employee said. “We try not to make it a big deal and make sure they’re still and quiet. We want them to take it seriously. It may affect one or two the way a tornado or fire drill would affect them, but most of the time they’re just goofing off because, I guess, it’s just become so normalized.”
For students, very early research suggests there isn’t much benefit to continuous drills, and the stress of mass shootings impact youth negatively, Nadorff said.
Children have justified fears regarding mass shootings taking place at schools, and one way to ease anxiety is for parents to talk to their children about the topic. Children need a trusted adult they can speak with about their fears.
“Don’t wait for it to hit close to home,” Nadorff said. “Have it where when things happen, they hear it from you and not others. It’s better for them to hear it from parents because you’re the first source of information, and it opens up those communication lines where if something happens, they’re more likely to come to you first as far as support and processing.”
Regardless of how students may react to drills and to the reality they live in, the teachers The Dispatch spoke with vehemently stated they would do anything to keep students safe.
“I just want students to know their teachers love them and wouldn’t be in this profession if we didn’t love this job,” the LCSD employee said. “For parents I want them to know, we’re going to do everything we can to keep your children safe. We’re not going to sacrifice them for anything. We are going to protect them at all costs.”
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