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New Study: Active Shooter Drills Could Further Increase Depression, Stress, Anxiety for Months

September 3, 2020

At a Time of Heightened Anxiety and Depression Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, a New Study Reveals Mental Health Challenges Show Up in Social Media Posts for at Least Three Months Following Drills

Georgia Tech and Everytown Researchers Analyzed Nearly 28 Million Social Media Posts Before and After Active Shooter Drills; Research Suggests that the Cost of Active-Shooter Drills May Outweigh their Benefits

NEW YORK — The Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund — an arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, the country’s largest gun violence prevention organization — today released the results of a first-of-its-kind study showing that active shooter drills in schools are associated with significant and lasting increases in depression, stress and anxiety, and fear of death among students, parents and teachers. The study, a partnership with Georgia Institute of Technology’s Social Dynamics and Wellbeing Lab, unveils strong evidence on the harmful impacts of active shooter drills. 

Using machine-learning technology to analyze nearly 28 million social media posts on Twitter and Reddit in the 90 days before and after local active shooter drills, Georgia Tech and Everytown researchers found:

  • Active shooter drills in schools are associated with increases in depression, as evidenced by a statistically significant increase in posts with words like therapy, cope, irritability, suicidal, and more;
  • Active shooter drills in schools are associated with increases in stress and anxiety, as evidenced by a statistically significant increase in posts with words like afraid, struggling, and nervous and more;
  • These trends were sustained at least 90 days following drills and spanned diverse school districts across the country and a wide variety of drill tactics.

“The coronavirus pandemic has led to increased stress and anxiety for students and teachers alike,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. “As our children return to school, they should not have to deal with the added stress of ineffective and traumatizing active shooter drills. This study shows clearly what parents have known for a while — active shooter drills are likely doing more harm than good.”

“Every parent wants their child to be safe in school, but as we learn more about the toll that active shooter drills take on our children and their communities, we must ask whether this is the best approach to improving school safety,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, director of research for Everytown for Gun Safety. “Fortunately, there are a set of proactive, evidence-based practices for intervening before gun violence can happen. None of these decisions are easy, but the more information schools have, the more equipped they’ll be to make them to help protect our nation’s students.”

“Students have spent the last six months mostly isolated from our peers, worried about the coronavirus pandemic,” said Kavita Parikh, a volunteer with Toledo Students Demand Action. “As we head back to school, we should be focused on maintaining our distance and staying healthy, not acting out how we’d respond in an active shooter situation. Our lawmakers need to take actions to keep guns out of schools in the first place.” 

“As we consider how to safely and equitably reopen America’s schools, we know that our students will be facing increased anxiety, trauma and all of the social, emotional and academic needs that have been heightened during months of distance learning,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “When it’s time to return to the classroom, safety is paramount—not only in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also in terms of the epidemic of gun violence that has plagued our schools for years. Making our schools safe sanctuaries involves investments in preparedness, but active shooter drills can be traumatic for students and educators alike, and we must study their impact and find other ways to invest in school safety. Thanks to Everytown for contributing to this crucial area of research. The results of this study underline the importance of the just passed AFT resolution opposing life-like active shooter drills.”

“As educators, ensuring our students’ safety and well-being is our number one priority,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “The sad fact is that the only reason there hasn’t been a school shooting in America recently is because most school buildings are shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But once our students return to the classroom, we need to ensure they aren’t further traumatized by active shooter drills. This new study tells us what educators have known for a while: there is no evidence that active shooter drills work to keep our students safe. They are terrifying students, leaving them unable to concentrate in the classroom and unable to sleep at night. Schools should use the billions of dollars they spend on these drills on what has been proven to keep our schools and communities safe: they should hire school-based counselors and mental health professionals and expand anti-bullying programs. Most importantly, Congress must pass common-sense gun laws, because right now too many very dangerous people have very easy access to very dangerous weapons.”

Additional findings:

  • Following active shooter drills, stress and anxiety increased the most within high school communities, whereas depression increased most within middle schools.
  • Active shooter drills in schools are associated with increases in fears about death and health, as evidenced by a statistically significant increase in posts with words like pain, blood, and pills.
  • Social and personal concerns over issues like friends, social situations, and work significantly increased in the 90 days following active shooter drills in schools.

Implementing proven strategies to prevent gun violence is more important than ever as gun sales have surged in recent months — many of them to first-time gun buyers. Even more children are living in homes with guns, potentially unsecured, and school shooters are overwhelmingly current or former students who get their guns from the home and nearly always show warning signs.

For schools that are physically reopening, students and teachers will likely be experiencing record highs in stress and anxiety due to the pandemic. Given the lack of scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of these drills either for preventing school shootings or for protecting the school community in the event of a shooting, Everytown recommends a set of proven school safety strategies that offer alternatives to drills. 

Among the recommendations:

  • Everytown does not recommend involving students in training exercises related to procedures for an active shooter. Everytown recommends prioritizing evidence-based school safety strategies above active shooter drills, including: threat assessment programs, access to mental health professionals and social support, non-punitive disciplinary processes, and community conversations that gather the perspectives of parents and other stakeholders for developing strategies that are responsive to local needs and resources.
  • If a school does implement active shooter drills for students
    • Drills should not include simulations that mimic an actual incident;
    • Parents should have advance notice of drills;
    • Drills should be announced to students and educators prior to the start;
    • Schools should create age and developmentally appropriate drill content with the involvement of school personnel, including school-based mental health professionals;
    • Schools should couple drills with trauma-informed approaches to address students’ wellbeing both during the drills, and over a sustained period thereafter;
    • Schools should track data about the efficacy and effects of drills.

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