Laurel Williams, D.O. (320x240)
Dr. Laurel Williams, associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Schools across the country have implemented active shooter drills and metal detectors to prepare for violence. While these practices may make school staff and parents feel safe, young children can often become confused and afraid, unsure of what to anticipate. Dr. Laurel Williams, associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital, discusses the psychological effects of active shooter drills and metal detectors on schoolchildren.

“People must keep in mind the developmental age and how that connects to young children’s emotional and cognitive abilities when considering and deploying these ‘preparedness drills.’ It is developmentally normal for young children to not understand time and be able to distinguish between something happening now verses something possibly happening in the future,” Williams said. “From the perspective of a child psychiatrist, I believe that it’s psychologically distressing for young child to practice active shooters coming into your area. It’s not clear to them that the drill is not real. The younger the child, the less likely they are to understand that an act of violence is not occurring during a drill.”

If schools determine that these drills are necessary, Williams recommends that schools consider the following key points:

  • Provide adequate notice to families and staff regarding the need for the drills and provide an orientation for both staff, parents and students before drills occur.
  • Provide education to staff and teachers about trauma-informed best practices and seek training for non-mental health professionals on how best to respond in the moment of crisis. Mental Health First Aide is a commonly employed training.
  • Allow for staff and children who already have experienced trauma to be excused from participating or have very close support before, during and after the drills.
  • Emphasize during the drills that it is just practice and continuously state the purpose.

Active shooter drills and installation of metal detectors also may reinforce society’s existing struggles with interpersonal connections, Williams said. Adults should be aware of the potential for psychological damage and focus on teaching children to be more socially interconnected with each other instead of locking people away from one another and reinforcing the concept that the world and the people in it are scary and unpredictable.

“If you’re constantly given the viewpoint that the world is a scary and unpreventable things happen, it pervasively makes us less secure as a society. We see everyone as suspicious, and it changes the way we act around people,” Williams said. “We need to work on social connectedness. It is my opinion and that of many other mental health professional that focusing on developing social connectivity may be a more potent inoculation against violence than drills and metal detectors in schools.”

Research into the promotion of social connectivity in schools has shown to decrease bullying and increase academic performance and mental health. Unfortunately, Williams said this often is an overlooked strategy as it is not as immediately satisfying as practicing active shooter drills, but it is crucial for psychological development for young children.