She remembers it started around sixth grade.
Emma Shelnutt, of Olmsted Falls, says this new kind of safety drill was something the school called a “lockdown drill.” The students were told that in case of a lockdown, they were to stay quiet, turn off the lights, lock and barricade the door, spread throughout the room and hide.
As these drills became a regular part of the school year, the concept of having an active shooter or violent intruder enter the school was frightening to Emma. It was upsetting for Amanda Shelnutt, Emma’s mother, too, but she was grateful that the school district was at least doing something.
“As a parent, it’s very scary to raise children these days,” she says. “Every generation has their thing. But this is something new, and you are entrusting your children to be kept safe by people who are with them every day. It was nice to know that the school district was taking it seriously and trying to prepare both the faculty and the kids to the best of their ability.”
As of Nov. 17, there had been 369 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2019, on pace to average more than one mass shooting per day, according to data from Gun Violence Archive, which tracks mass shootings in the country. Twenty-eight of those shootings were mass murders, defined as incidents in which at least four people were killed. Mass shootings are defined as an incident in which four or more people (excluding the gunman) are shot.
The Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School in California has tracked 86 shootings at K-12 schools in 2019 as of this writing, with 22 deaths (including the shooters) and 107 total injured or killed.
Even still, the odds of being killed in a school shooting are extremely low — about one in 2 million. Yet, school shootings rank as the second most common worry among children ages 6 to 17, according to a 2018 survey by the Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit child advocacy group.
Today, Emma is a high school sophomore and says the feeling that “this can’t happen to us” has diminished with each new report that comes out of a school shooting.
“The school environment as a whole, no matter what district you are in, has changed,” Emma says. “Not just because the drills have been added in, but just because it’s becoming a reality for every student everywhere. And knowing that we have to add in these drills just to make sure that we can continue our education safely, it’s scary. It’s overwhelming and it’s scary.”
Emma started school before the lockdown drills became prevalent and was jolted by their arrival. However, for students who have always had lockdown drills as part of their school experience, it may not be as frightening. Younger students often think of the lockdown drills in a similar way that they think of fire drills or tornado drills — they’re just a regular part of a school day for them.
Research suggests that the vast majority of violent intruders are current or former students of the school. One of the most important things to talk with your kids about is how to identify a student who may be a threat, and what to do if they hear something about a potential attack.
Emma and her classmates understand the gravity of the drills they perform — a training program called ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate), which includes instruction on when to try to escape, when to defend yourself and fight back, or how to communicate a situation — and that no matter where they are in the country, there is a possibility of violence on school grounds. Most schools are using ALICE or a type of safety training measures for students and teachers.
The drills Emma and her classmates undergo include how to defend themselves against the intruder if it came to it. Emma says they were told to throw objects, punch, grab anything they can get their hands on to use as a weapon, and prepare to protect themselves. Teachers also were instructed to put wallpaper on the door windows as a deterrent in case of an intruder.
Riley Phillips,12, a seventh grader in Ellet, doesn’t think too much about the drills.
“It just feels fun, because we know it’s fake,” Riley says. “The boys grab scissors and weapons that we can defend ourselves with. The girls are actually taking it seriously, and we all have scissors and it’s more like a game. But we’re not supposed to talk.”
Riley was quick to note that when a real lockdown occurred when he was in third grade, he was terrified at the time. Luckily, it turned out to be a false alarm.
His mother, Julie Phillips, is in her 20th year of teaching in Akron, currently teaching sixth grade language arts at Hyre CLC. Her students also consider the lockdown drills to be no big deal — unless they have one that’s unannounced.
“When we’re on lockdown and the kids know it’s not a drill and we don’t know what’s going on, then they panic,” she says. “Because they think this could be real, and they are old enough to know what ‘real’ is. It’s a lot worse when there’s a lockdown that wasn’t planned, because in their mind, it’s a shooter.”
Many schools also are working toward securing their buildings.
Willoughby-Eastlake School District, for example, has worked on improving designs to secure school access and other safety features on the windows and doors.
Olmsted Falls School District has a mental health reporting system in place to check on students’ well-being. It’s an anonymous reporting system through which students or parents can text, call or go in directly to give the guidance office information if a student is having a hard time, has been missing a lot of class, has an altercation or in any way looks like they need help. It enables the guidance office to reach out to that student or their family to check on them and make sure that everything’s okay.
Talking to Your Kids About Violence in School
It can be a difficult decision to make as a parent whether or not to broach the topic of mass violence in school. On one hand, you don’t want your kids to be fearful of going to school or anxious about something that is statistically improbable. On the other hand, they’ll be going through ALICE or lockdown drills and will be discussing it with teachers and friends, so it’s best for parents to be in the conversation.
For most preschoolers and elementary school students that have taken part in lockdown drills, schools tend to soften the description, with no mention of “shooters” or violence. The scenario is presented as there may be a time when someone who’s not supposed to be in the building is there, and they’re practicing hiding and staying quiet. The school usually sends a note or email home to let parents know that a lockdown drill will be happening.
“With the note, I automatically ask my kids about it — I bring it up to them, but they’ve never really felt like it’s a big deal,” says Amanda Funk, parent to three elementary-aged children in Olmsted Falls. “I was a little caught off guard and it did scare me a little bit the first time I saw the letter. But once I talked to my kids about it and they didn’t look at it as a big deal, I had to look at it as a safety measure that the schools need to take so that they don’t have kids in chaos if that ever does unfortunately happen at one of our schools.”
According to an “age-by-age guide” for talking to children about shootings published by the “Today Show,” author Meghan Holohan recommends talking with your children about intruders, shootings and other violence in schools in age-appropriate ways.
For example, Holohan writes “Preschool aged kids should have one-sentence, high-level explanations that are in line with your beliefs as a parent. For elementary school kids, ask a question first, like, “How do you prepare for emergencies at school?’ and hear the language they’re using at school so that you can address it at their level. For older students in middle school and high school, avoid dismissing or trying to solve the problem. They are looking for empathy and understanding, and trying to fix the problem for them will make you lose credibility. Listen, and ask how they feel.”
Mental Health America says that knowing how to talk with your kids about school safety issues could be critical in recognizing and preventing acts of violence, while playing an important role in managing students’ fears, anxiety and sense of personal risk. It offers the following suggestions:
- Encourage children to talk about their concerns and to express their feelings. Make sure to do so in an age-appropriate way.
- Talk honestly about your own feelings regarding school violence. It’s important they know they’re not dealing with their fears alone.
- Validate the child’s feelings. Do not minimize a child’s concerns, but let him/her know that serious school violence is not common. Stress that schools are safe places.
- Empower children to take action regarding school safety. Encourage them to report incidents such as bullying, threats or talk of suicide, and work with them on problem solving and conflict-resolution skills. If your older student’s school has student-run anti-violence programs, encourage your child to participate if they feel comfortable.
- Discuss the safety procedures that are in place at your child’s school. Help your child understand that they are in place to keep them all safe and stress the importance of following school rules and policies.
- Create safety plans with your child. Help identify which adults (a friendly secretary, trusted teacher or approachable administrator) your child can talk to if they feel scared or threatened at school. Also ensure that your child knows how to reach you (or another family member or friend) in case of crisis during the school day. Remind your child that they can talk to you any time they feel threatened.
- Recognize behavior that may indicate your child is concerned about returning to school. Younger children might not want to go to school or participate in school-based activities. Teens may not outwardly show their anxiety, but may become argumentative, withdrawn or allow their school performance to decline.
- Keep the dialogue going and make school safety a common topic in family discussions, rather than just a response to an immediate crisis. Open dialogue will encourage children to share their concerns.
- Seek help when necessary. If you are worried about a child’s reaction or have ongoing concerns about their behavior or emotions, contact a mental health professional at school or at your community mental health center. Your local Mental Health Association or the National Mental Health Association’s Information Center can direct you to resources in your community.