My eldest daughter started kindergarten this year. I was prepared for many of the new routines: packing her lunch, buying and labeling her school supplies (I never did locate the correct-size pencil case), and checking her take-home folder nightly. But several things did catch me off guard.
I was surprised to learn kindergartners at her school would be using tablets in class. I couldn’t believe my usually guarded daughter asked to do solo curbside drop off on the second day. And I was wholly unprepared to learn my five-year-old would be participating in active-shooter drills and in-classroom instructional materials discussing school shootings or related emergency scenarios.
Active shooter drills have become standard in our public schools, with ALICE drills (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) emerging as the current preferred training concept. Despite these drills being as ubiquitous as those for fires or earthquakes, there are no clear federal standards for how ALICE drills should be implemented. This lack of evidence-based standards has left school districts attempting to develop their own programs and procedures, some of which are inappropriate, counterproductive, or may cause serious unintended harm of their own.
Mental health professionals are ringing alarm bells about the traumatizing effects that these life-like drills can have on children. Research indicates that active-shooter drills may increase student’s depression, stress, anxiety, and fear of death. Over the past few years, organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Education Association, the America Federation of Teachers, and the National Association of School Psychologists have recommended discontinuing drills that simulate a realistic school shooting. They have also variously recommended giving parents notice of drills, using age-appropriate language, or discontinuing student participation in drills altogether. It appears some school districts are listening and adapting their policies. Washington state recently passed a bill prohibiting schools from conducting drills involving “live simulations or reenactments of active shooter scenarios that are not trauma-informed and age and developmentally appropriate.”
Let me be clear: I think there are many steps a school or school district can take to train for the unthinkable. I am in favor of teacher and administrator trainings. I appreciate the close partnership of the Anchorage School District and Anchorage Police Department, and I encourage our schools to continuously evaluate the merits of hard lockdown procedures compared to more adaptive (hide, run, fight) approaches like the ALICE method. I’m just not convinced teaching my five-year-old to avoid a school shooter (a concept completely unknown to her) by running down the hall in a zig-zag pattern while throwing objects and screaming is the best course.
The above preparedness activity, popularized in the book “I’m Not Scared, I’m Prepared! Because I Know All About ALICE” is standard at many elementary schools around the nation. I had no idea. Did you? After reviewing our school’s active shooter drills and evaluating the risks, my husband and I made the careful and thought-out decision that our kindergartner would not be participating in active-shooter drills or in-class instruction on the topic this year.
The process for withdrawal was easy. I called her school administrators and informed them of our family’s decision. Her teacher was notified, and she and I had a brief conversation about our family’s expectations. On active-shooter drill or in-class education days our daughter will either be pulled from class or kept home with me.
Over the last couple of weeks, I cautiously mentioned my concerns about active-shooter drills and our family’s decision to not participate this year with several friends and acquaintances. I expected to be met with eye rolls. Instead, many expressed their own surprise, concern, and agreement.
“I hate ALICE drills,” one mom wrote to me, though she added that as her kids got older, she became less concerned about possible negative effects. Several moms of kindergarteners had no idea what ALICE drills were or that they were taking place in their child’s classroom. Some moms were indifferent, reasoning that if the school has deemed it necessary, then their child should participate.
One mom I spoke with confided in me that her child developed major anxiety after the drills, and that they had sought out the help of a therapist.
One progressive friend—a teacher and former Alaskan who moved to the lower 48 many years ago—was intrigued by the idea of opting out. “I didn’t think to opt-out,” she told me. “There was a fist fight on my first day of teaching high school because a shooter drill stressed out the kids so much,” she recalled. She is considering withdrawing her oldest.
A more conservative friend asked for curriculum information from an Anchorage public school and is pulling her kindergartener from at least the first drill. She was completely unaware of the in-class education component, in which young children may be read books or taught songs/games about how to react in the case of a school shooter. Her daughter is sensitive and dealing with a rough entry into the school year. My friend is worried how her daughter will react without being prepped at home first.
In recent years, nationwide studies have consistently shown rising levels of anxiety and depression in our children. Many students are trying to recover academically from pandemic learning loss. Though mass shootings are unquestionably tragic, I hope Anchorage schools continue to evaluate whether it’s worth putting student mental health at risk to prepare for a cause of death that, statistically, is extraordinarily unlikely.
As a community, we should seriously question whether drilling children again and again to imagine the most terrifying situations happening at their school, using a controversial program, is the best use of our already-tight school budgets. It is not unreasonable to suggest that active-shooter training should focus on adults.
Ultimately, this decision lies with the parents. Parents must review the data and decide whether to continue their child’s participation in drills that could cause harm while providing questionable or no clear benefits. While it may be appropriate for your child to participate, for our kindergartener it is not. I invite you to join us.
Allison Hovanec was born and raised in Alaska. She and her husband are raising three young children in South Anchorage. She is a co-owner of the Alaska Landmine, writer for the Alaska Political Report and generally competent.