'Lockdown anxiety': How early is too early to train kids on school shootings?

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Farmington Hills — Inside her kindergarten classroom, Matthew Perko's daughter was told to hide. Someone was inside her school who should not be there, the child was told as part of a school safety drill.

It was the day Farmington public school officials set for elementary school students to practice one of three mandated lockdown drills a year, so Perko's daughter and her classmates watched as the classroom door was locked and lights turned off.

The children were then instructed to hide, Perko said. They were told it was just a drill, but  Perko worries it could be too much to ask of a 5-year-old.

"The word 'bad guy, assailant or shooter' wasn’t used," Perko said. "I also know my 5-year-old, and I know where her anxiety level lives on a day-to-day basis."

Perko, like many parents, worries about the stress put on children whose innocence is tested during a rehearsal for what could be the worst day of their young lives.

"It's not a matter of hiding everything," he said. "It's how is the message being delivered and is it appropriate? ... What can kids handle at different ages?”

Farmington police Officer Mark Mostek, left, has a toy weapon taken away from him by Sgt. Michael Flatt, during an ALICE training program at the Maxfield Education Center in Farmington.

In Michigan and across the nation, questions are being raised about "lockdown anxiety" at K-12 schools and what is being asked of children as young as 5 during active shooter training.

Law enforcement officials advocate education and preparedness when it comes to school safety training. For younger children, the focus is often on escaping or hiding, but for older students, training includes confronting a gunman as a last resort.

Methods for lockdown drills vary from district to district and state to state.

School psychologists say lockdowns can save lives, but in some cases might produce anxiety, stress and traumatic symptoms.

"I think there are many, many parents who are questioning what is necessary and appropriate for kids in terms of active shooter drills," said Katherine Cowan, a spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists.

"Every parent wants their kid to be safe. What does it look like and how are schools balancing the negative effects (of drills)? What's harmful and what’s not? Lots of parents are asking those questions right now."

Nationally, 95% of U.S. schools reported holding lockdown drills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics data from 2015-16.

Michigan requires K-12 districts to hold three lockdown drills a year and to report completed drills on their websites no later than 30 days after. Some districts, such as Farmington, hold five lockdown drills per school year.

Michigan education officials do not track what training programs districts use or whether training materials are tailored to different age groups, saying it's a local control decision. They also do not track how many lockdowns Michigan's 1.5 million student population endures every school year.

"MDE does not have legal authorization to track when schools get locked down or when they complete drills. This is handled at a local level," MDE spokesman Bill DiSessa said.

Many Michigan school districts train their teachers and staff using the ALICE Training Institute methods. According to its website, ALICE is being used by 5,548 school districts nationwide. ALICE is an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.

Districts then run ALICE-coordinated lockdown drills in schools using teachers and staff who've learned ALICE techniques and must translate that training for students in elementary, middle and high schools. Some districts post ALICE K-12 training materials on their websites while others do not.

“It’s not a matter of hiding everything. It’s how is the message being delivered and is it appropriate? ... What can kids handle...?” Matthew Perko said of safety drills.

In late September, the Kalamazoo Public Schools district suspended use of ALICE training at nine schools after several parents voiced concerns their children were being traumatized by the school security drills.

After a public meeting was held to discuss how the student training could be improved, the training presentations were modified and an opt-out procedure was developed, district spokeswoman Susan Coney said.

"A letter and opt-out form were sent to parents to notify them that the revised ALICE training would be held at their child's school before the end of November," Coney said. "Just over 1% of students submitted opt-out forms for the November training."

On its website, the district posted ALICE training materials for children ages pre-K-3, grades 4-5 and grades 6-12. For children below grade 6, the materials do not teach them to counter or attack a gunman. For older students, the training proposes a discussion on "counter" and how it keeps students safe.

In the Farmington school district, where staff is trained using ALICE, students are taught to run from potential threats whenever possible, said Jonathan Manier, director of special services for Farmington public schools. If it is necessary to hide, students are instructed to create a barricade between themselves and any potential threat.

“As appropriate for students’ ages, we will empower students and staff to protect themselves by acting as a group to confront a potential threat,” Manier said in a letter to parents.

Manier said younger children are not asked to throw objects at assailants and said the district had "talking points" for staff on what appropriate language to use for children of different ages.

Those talking points were not provided to parents or The Detroit News, despite several requests, leaving many asking for clarity and transparency from the district.

"I don’t think it’s being implemented in a developmentally appropriate way based on how old these kids are,” said Erin Lietz, a Farmington Hills mother who pulled her child out of school during the lockdown drill.

"We need to look at best practices for these kids and psychologically. Are we creating an environment of fear for them?”

Managing trauma

Law enforcement officials advocate options-based training, which encourages school staff and students to run, hide or fight in an emergency. Some other school safety experts oppose certain tactics, arguing running from a shooter versus locking down creates "target-rich" environments and risks greater losses of life.

Ken Trump, a school security expert based in Cleveland who is president of National School Safety and Security Services, said age and developmentally appropriate preparedness drills are reasonable, work to protect students and save lives.

Trump says he does not support teaching children and staff to attack gunmen or extreme drills and said ALICE should not be used for children in K-12 schools.

"There is a groundswell of parents and child psychologists and advocates talking about increased trauma and anxiety and asking questions on whether this is necessary or appropriate and whether it crosses into the area of doing harm," Trump said.

"It's so ironic that today trauma-informed education is the buzz phrase in schools … and at the same time, some schools are becoming trauma-inducing organizations."

Lockdowns became a staple in school emergency plans following the Columbine High School attack in 1999 in Colorado, Trump said. Lockdowns move students and staff out of the way of potential harm and into locked classrooms, offices or other secure locations instead of open hallways and common areas. 

In 2013, after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn, the U.S. Department of Education changed its active-shooter response recommendations for K-12 schools from sheltering in place or lockdown to a “run, hide, fight” plan.

But according to a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson this month, the department does not endorse "specific on-the-ground methods" for use in school districts.

"The decision about whether the ALICE model, the 'Run, Hide, Fight' model, or any other model should be used is a decision best made by school officials and others at the local level,"  DOE spokeswoman Angela Morabito said.

A final report of the Federal Commission on School Safety discusses the importance of schools developing comprehensive emergency operations plans, Morabito said. The department also issued a guide in 2013 for developing high-quality school emergency operations plans.

"That school guide puts forward the 'Run, Hide, Fight' model as a possible supplement to other first-line protocols, like lockdowns, noting that the recommendation extended only to adults and only as a last resort," Morabito said.

Farmington police Officer Mark Mostek, left, shows how to disarm a person with a gun, as portrayed by Sgt. Michael Flatt during an ALICE training program at the Maxfield Education Center in Farmington.

Appropriate drills

The National Association of School Psychologists said lockdowns can save lives and are considered best practice in crisis response, but, depending on circumstances, some lockdowns might produce anxiety, stress and traumatic symptoms in students or staff.

Along with the National Association of School Resource Officers, the association issued a 2017 paper on best practice considerations for active shooter drills in schools, saying it's "critical" that participation in drills be appropriate to individual development levels, and take into consideration prior traumatic experiences, special needs and personalities.

School-employed mental health professionals should be involved in every stage of preparation and before the drill, staff should be trained to recognize common trauma reactions, the guidelines say.

"Adults should monitor participants during the drill and remove anyone exhibiting signs of trauma," the guidelines say. "After completion, staff and students should have access to mental health support, if needed."

Paul Sagini, left, and his wife, Jennifer Sagini, thank the ALICE program organizers for taking the time to inform them on how it works, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, at the Maxfield Education Center in Farmington, Mich.

George Rierson, superintendent of the Unionville-Sebewaing Area school district in Michigan's Thumb region, said he began using ALICE to train school staff last school year. He omits the portion teaching confronting the assailant.

"We really focus on students exiting the building. We decided to take a slower route and focus on instruction," Rierson said.

Rierson says he is aware of the debate among parents about whether the training is doing more harm than good. 

For its youngest students in elementary and middle school, the district follows the recommendations of the school psychologists and school resource officers that focus on having conversations about why and how students might need to use a window to exit a classroom.

"We wanted to deal with barriers to that exit. Do we need stepstools? We focus on conversations on the word safety, which creates less alarm than active shooter," Rierson said. "We did think about the different levels of development, and we didn’t want to traumatize them."

The adult is in charge

Manier, directors of special services for Farmington public schools, said the focus for all students is on evacuation and younger children are not taught to counter or charge gunmen. 

"We really want the adult to be in charge. ...We want the adult to be giving the direction in the room," Manier said for younger students in the district.

The district does not practice active drills with students or teachers as some states do where rubber bullets or live or recorded gunfire are used, Manier said.

The district does have a page on its website where it offers advice from Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital to parents about talking to young children grades K-2 and 3-5 about safety issues at school. Some materials are in a storybook form on a YouTube video.

"It's a very delicate balance between creating fear and anxiety and creating preparedness, and the ability to act when you need to act," Manier told a parent who asked if he could show his older child the ALICE training video. "We are in our second year, and I'm sure our practices will evolve and get better, but we have to start somewhere."

During ALICE training, Farmington Hills police officer Brett Putman said children hiding underneath school desks and waiting for the police to arrive is a security method of the past no longer recommended for today's students.

"We no longer depend on someone else to keep us safe. We want to depend on us. ... In teacher's case, they have to depend on themselves or in some situations older students," Putman said.

Paul Sagini and his wife, Jennifer, who have a sixth grader and 10th grader in the Farmington district, also attended recent ALICE training for parents, calling it empowering for children and adults.

Sagini said his children live in a world where "people are running around with guns shooting up elementary schools, middle schools, high schools."

"What we are confronted with as parents are the questions from our kids asking us what should we do? How should we respond?" Sagini said. "Mom and dad we heard about this shooting today. …They begin a feel a sense of fear at school that something is going to happen to them.”

A recent school security incident in the district left their son hysterical for a couple of days earlier this school year, Paul said.

"If a guy races into a classroom and starts shooting, I’d rather the kids have the knowledge to know what to do to protect themselves than not," he said.

Jennifer said she understands the concerns of graphic presentations for younger children and that parents do not know what their children are exposed to in school during such drills.

"We know what we saw tonight, and I wouldn’t having any problem showing any of this content to my kids at all," she said.

Trump, the security expert, encourages parents to know all aspects of student drills such as how age appropriateness and developmental factors are defined; what considerations are made for special needs students; the qualifications and methods of instructors and the liability of trainers and agencies involved.

Parents should ask for a written copy of the school board's formal policy related to drills, a copy of the curriculum and training materials used to train the trainers and to train students and ask for opt-out policies, Trump said.

"Parents should not only ask questions, they should do so formally in writing, and if not resolved at the administrative level, ask them at public school board meetings," Trump said.