WASHINGTON — After the first day of school at Mark T. Sheehan High School in Wallingford, Conn., Mackenzie Bushey, a 15-year-old junior, came home upset that a teacher enforced a no-cellphones policy by confiscating students’ phones before class. She needed her cell, Mackenzie told her family last month, to notify police should a gunman attack her school.
And also, she said, “to say my final goodbye to you.”
Mackenzie’s mother, Brenda Bushey, blames her daughter’s fears on monthly active-shooter drills at Sheehan High. “I understand they’re trying to think about the children’s best interests,’’ Ms. Bushey said in an interview. “But you can’t help but think of how it’s affecting them.”
Nearly every American public school now conducts lockdown drills — 96 percent in 2015 and 2016 — according to the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. Law enforcement officials and many school administrators say they are crucial for preparing and safeguarding students, but methods vary widely and now include drills that child trauma experts say do little more than terrify already anxious children.
“A whole new cottage industry has emerged where people who don’t know anything about kids are jumping in and adapting protocols for groups like police officers or people preparing for combat,” said Bruce D. Perry, founder of the ChildTrauma Academy, whose clinical team assists maltreated and traumatized children through counseling, research and education. As a result, Dr. Perry said in an interview, “The number of developmentally uninformed, child-uninformed and completely stupid ideas is mind-numbing.”
The news media attention and policy debate surrounding school shootings, and the heartbreaking details of massacres like Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland, heighten the perceived risk among parents and students alike. After the shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., nearly 60 percent of American teenagers said they were very or somewhat worried about a mass shooting at school, a similar proportion as parents, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
In fact, while the vast majority of gun-related homicides involving children occur in the United States, only a tiny percentage occur on school grounds. But August’s spate of mass shootings, including in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Odessa and Midland, Tex., have lent urgency to a flood of new preparedness efforts.
“Every shooting event brings a spike in contacts by people who say ‘we need to be doing something,’” said Greg Crane, founder of the ALICE Training Institute, which teaches seminars for school officials and law enforcement, who then run their own drills.
In mid-August in Muncie, Ind., school officials running a back-to-school emergency preparation class for children as young as 11 played a 911 recording of a teacher’s agonized pleas for students to hide during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
A week later in Florida’s Volusia County, police officers videotaped their arrest of a 15-year-old boy who made a shooting threat while playing Minecraft online, and then released to the public as “a warning” the recording of the child in handcuffs and his weeping mother.
Public school officials in Jefferson County, Colo., distributed buckets and kitty litter to use as makeshift toilets during an extended lockdown, and felt-tip markers for marking the time a tourniquet was applied on the arms of potential victims.
The number of armed assailant drills in American public schools increased after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, when the Education Department changed its active-shooter response recommendations from sheltering in place to “options-based” approaches like “run, hide, fight” — training created for adults faced with workplace violence.
The security industry responded, promoting and selling programs that schools and local law enforcement officers adapt with fake blood, menacing masked “shooters” and simulated gunfire. Last year at Short Pump Middle School in Glen Allen, Va., school officials staged an unannounced active-shooter drill featuring multiple fire alarms, loud noises and unseen people jiggling the handles of classroom doors.
Mr. Crane, the founder of ALICE and a former Texas law enforcement officer, said that such drills are necessary and could make the difference between life and death. ALICE is an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.
“The training is not designed to scare anyone,” he said in an interview. “I don’t have to make it real to get you to understand how the strategies work.”
In guidance updated in 2017, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers acknowledged that such drills had the potential to empower staff and save lives. But the groups warned that “without proper caution, they can risk causing harm to participants.”
Psychologists and many educators say frequent, realistic drills contribute to anxiety and depression in children, and they have begun urging school systems to rethink active-shooter training for children and to teach preventive measures, like recognizing and seeking help for troubled classmates.
“The best way to make school safer is to focus on proven policies and programs instead of extreme drills that rob children of their belief that schools are in fact extremely safe places,” Shannon Watts, founder of the gun safety group Moms Demand Action, said in an interview.
Dr. Perry of the ChildTrauma Academy said that as school shooting drills proliferated over the past two decades, research into their effectiveness failed to keep pace. Children’s brains and coping skills are still developing, he said, and not all children react to stress in the same way, complicating efforts to study how well drills work.
“People tend to forget that if your child reacts to a drill in a way that’s tolerable, it doesn’t mean that others do,” he said. For some children, intense preparedness exercises “can be so overwhelming that they tune out, or can’t process it.”
Active-shooter training, he said, should focus on adults. “If the teachers in the situation stay relatively calm, then the children will literally reflect that emotional state, and follow through with whatever they’re asked to do,” he said. Scare tactics, he added, “do not make kids more thoughtful, compassionate or empathic. It does the opposite.”
Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a former Sandy Hook teacher, describes in her memoir, “Choosing Hope,” how she tapped similar skills to save 15 students during the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting, which killed 20 children and six educators.
Hiding with her students inside her classroom’s tiny bathroom while shooting raged outside, Ms. Roig-DeBellis recalled reminding herself that first graders would model their teacher’s behavior.
“If I panic, they’ll all panic,” she wrote, adding, “It’s a very difficult thing, putting on a cool front in the midst of what I know is life and death.”
Alice M. Forrester, the chief executive of the Clifford Beers Child Clinic in New Haven, Conn., was part of a team that helped notify and counsel Sandy Hook victims’ families, and helped devise an emotional health program for surviving children returning to school. She also served on the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, a multidisciplinary body whose final report recommended a range of measures to help reduce the chances of a similar tragedy.
Early on, the commission focused on school security. “Then we heard from Dr. Marisa Randazzo, one of the authors of the Safe Schools Study,” Dr. Forrester said. The 1999 shooting deaths of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School prompted the study, by the Secret Service and the Education Department, of 37 prior episodes of school violence.
The agencies found “that in almost every instance, people had concern about the shooter and that the shooter had indicated need for help,” Dr. Forrester said.
An additional 2008 report, known as the Bystander Study, found that people who knew in advance about an attacker’s plans were friends, classmates or siblings, suggesting attacks “might have been avoided with proper observation techniques and more open sharing of information.”
Many school drills “are done without a whole lot of thought, to show the public that we’re doing something,” said William Modzeleski, the former director of the Education Department’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, and an author of the 2008 report.
Communities need to create multidisciplinary assessment teams focused on violence prevention that “can conduct a thorough threat assessment in order to gain an understanding of the individual. They then can help the person get appropriate services,” Dr. Forrester said, countering threats long before “the shooter is right outside the door, and you’re under your desk.”