“We did a stranger drill at school today.” I vividly remember the first time my daughter told me about an active shooter drill at her elementary school. As she described hiding in the back of the classroom and being quiet so the “stranger” wouldn’t hear them, my heart stood still. I knew this was one of those moments you have to grab as a parent and engage with before they lose interest. She was 6, so we hadn’t had many of those moments yet, but I never shied away from truth-telling with her.
But this time, I froze. I didn’t want to make it hard for her to do these drills in the future, and I didn’t want her to have to worry about the reality—which is that today, in the world we live in, grown men barge into children’s classrooms for no reason at all, trying to kill as many people as they can. And I couldn’t tell her not to worry because it wouldn’t happen at her school, because it felt like a lie.
The Hard Reality of School Shootings
Sarah Sheldon, a Royse City mom who is about to send her oldest off to kindergarten, knows she’s about to approach the same crossroads. “I’m all about having age-appropriate conversations with my kids. You got body questions? Cool. You want to talk about something that happened at preschool? Let’s talk about it. But how do I talk to him about what happens when someone comes into your school with the intention to harm you? Now you’re introducing the concept of pure evil to them that they haven’t experienced. It just sucks to have to be like, well, you’re 6, time to talk about this part of the world.”
It’s a problem that keeps parents and teachers up at night. Jess Walls is a music teacher at a Dallas charter school, and while her school is in a safe district, she says in general she feels less safe today than when she started teaching in 2008. “The biggest changes are things like mass shootings and other situations that target schools that seem to be more frequent each year.”
Parents often feel helpless, not knowing what they can do to address such a huge problem with so many issues and disparate solutions, from more policing or arming teachers—just 7 percent of Texas schools do—to locking down schools tighter, adding metal detectors, increasing the number of counselors and changing school design. It’s overwhelming when you’re facing putting your child in a school for the first time and another shooting makes the news, says Sheldon. “You start to go, Could I be a homeschool mom?”
Although sometimes it feels like nothing has changed after so many tragedies, there has been lots of movement in how first responders react to these events and how Texas schools have responded. That includes changes to tactical response, the creation of hundreds of school district police departments and anti-bullying efforts.
Tactically, starting with Columbine, first responders developed new standards for when they breach a building during an active threat. The policy is to no longer wait for backup or SWAT, and instead to go in with whatever you have, even if it’s just one officer. That doesn’t always happen as we expect it to, though—consider the Parkland, Florida, school safety officer who didn’t confront the gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, or those images of law enforcement lined up in the hallway at the elementary school in Uvalde but not immediately going in the classroom to take out the shooter.
“The more incidents like these we have,” says Rockwall Police Chief Max Geron (update: as of August 1, 2022, Geron has joined Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute as Senior Director of Health & Public Safety), “the more variations in response you’re going to see. That’s because these officers who are responding are human beings, and they have to overcome the human nature of survival in order to intervene in an active shooter situation.”
EMS professionals are now also having to confront that part of human nature, says Russel Warren, a tactical EMS team lead for Rockwall County. Shortly after Sandy Hook he came back from Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training with some news for his unit: They would all be getting ballistic vests and tactical gear in order to respond more safely to school shootings.
This change in protocol meant that instead of EMS heading into a “cold” zone to aid the wounded, where law enforcement had done a thorough sweep of the entire scene and deemed it safe, they would now be entering what are called “warm” zones. This indicates that a threat has been neutralized, but law enforcement remains on alert, guns at the ready, for other threats.
Texas schools are trying to address the issue of shootings from a few different angles. “The fastest growing type of police department in the state of Texas is the independent school district police department,” says Geron. More than 30 percent of Texas schools (309 out of 1,022 districts) now have their own police departments to help mitigate all the issues that require constant partnership between a police department and a campus or district.
Police departments are responsible for providing school resource officers, or SROs, who can help investigate threats, provide security on campus, offer guidance for contingency planning and even recommend solutions to tricky safety issues on campus. “Anytime we do a lockdown drill, they bring in additional officers and practice the door unlocking,” says Dallas high school counselor Amy Lutes. “They try to simulate what would really happen in that situation. … What happens if we are in the gym, where do we send kids? Those are things they are starting to address more after Uvalde.”
SROs can also consult when a district is constructing a new facility or campus, making suggestions on what building elements can make the space safer, says Geron. “There are opportunities for us to have input on crime prevention through environmental design … and our SROs have the ability to share concerns and recommendations, not only through the principal but the district.” Environmental design—emphasizing secure entrances, wider hallways, clear sightlines and other safety-conscious features—is one solution to the problem of school shooters. It’s an expensive one, so most schools make do by adding more locks and metal detectors.
“Schools aren’t prisons, and they shouldn’t feel that way.”
But some argue that once someone arrives on campus with a gun, it’s too late to stop them, and SROs were not a deterrent for many shooters in plots that were stopped. The ACLU also found youth arrest rates were 3.5–8 times higher on campuses with SROs present. “Schools aren’t prisons, and they shouldn’t feel that way,” says Blair Taylor, a regional coordinator for Moms Demand Action and the mother of three school-age kids in Richardson. “The responsibility is on adults to securely store guns and to push for better gun laws so there is less access to guns by people who shouldn’t have them.”
Stopping Threats Before They’re on Campus
The two main camps in the argument on how to stop school shootings are, not shockingly, the folks who think the solution is to make campuses more secure, and the folks who want fewer people to have access to guns. But a 2018 Secret Service report on school threat mitigation points to another solution, one that’s not really made it into the shouting match: Threat assessment.
Every school district in Texas is required to have an anonymous tip-reporting line. It was put into place by a measure called David’s Law, says Kathy Martinez-Prather, Ph.D., director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. The law is named for a San Antonio student who took his life after experiencing bullying and harassment. “Texas schools, as of 2019, have been required to have school behavioral threat assessment teams, and part of that process is having an anonymous reporting system in place,” Martinez-Prather explains.
Bullying can be reported on these tip lines, but so can drugs, threats of violence and anything else anyone thinks is relevant. “The threat assessment team on our campus is made up of an admin, a counselor and a district security person,” says Lutes. “Anytime there is a threat, they come in and debrief that, they look at what went right, what went wrong, always trying to improve upon things.”
The importance of these anonymous tip lines is evident by the numbers in the Secret Service report. In the 67 cases of school violence plots the Secret Service investigated, nearly all the plotters communicated their intent to others: “In one-fifth of the cases, plotters warned others not to come to school or gave instructions on how to stay safe during the attack. In half of all cases, at least one communication was not reported,” states the report.
In 61% of these cases, classmates and peers reported the behavior. When you combine that with other similarities, such as that two-thirds selected a date that coincided with the anniversaries of other mass shootings or major school events, such as the first or last day of school or the last day before a break or holiday, we start to get a clear picture of what to look for and when to look for it.
Police know this too, so they take the tips gathered from the hotlines seriously, says Chief Geron. “When a complaint comes in, we vet it, we prioritize it, and try to get the students the help they need.”
That help isn’t always punitive, and that’s important for students to know. It just indicates that an additional check-in is needed. But we could do more to educate kids on using the hotlines and just how vital those tips are, urges Lutes. “I think in any situation, kids always need to say something if they hear something, and it needs to be more encouraged.”
Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit created in the wake of that tragedy, has training for every age group on the warning signs for gun violence through the “Say Something” program, which is available to schools for free.
“There are solutions […] that have nothing to do with guns. We don’t put out fires by pouring gasoline on them.”
CJ Evans, a Fort Worth ISD school board trustee and the board secretary, says her district actively supports threat reporting among parents and students, even those that occur off campus, such as on social media. “We encourage our parents to have conversations with their students. … If they hear or see something around a safety threat at their school, they report it immediately. If students see a social media post, they report the post. It is important that parents encourage students to help by not keeping information to themselves. … Tell an adult.”
In 2021, the Texas Legislature adopted Senate Bill 2050, which requires schools to have a bullying intervention program, a committee that evaluates that campaign, emphasizes increased reporting of bullying and requires districts to evaluate their efforts and report on them. These efforts aren’t just feel-good fluff or more safe spaces; they’re sustained, anti-bullying efforts that work to lower two main risk factors in bullied kids, depression and suicidal thoughts.
“We are lucky that my daughter’s school added a counselor this year—a crisis counselor,” says Taylor. “We have to address mental health. We do want more counselors. We do want more mental health support. There are solutions and ways to address safety in schools that have nothing to do with guns. We don’t put out fires by pouring gasoline on them.”
More safety regulations may be in the works in Fort Worth ISD in light of Uvalde, says Evans. “Even as we design for the 2021 bond, we are anticipating potential legislative changes and/or new expert recommendations and will respond accordingly.”
The Secret Service report summarizes the lessons law enforcement agencies have learned from successes they’ve had in subverting school shootings since 2006. They have learned that most of the plotters plan their attack for a month or more. The would-be shooters tend to signal to people about their plot, whether through behavior changes or making an outright threat, and most of the time it’s their peers reporting it.
Most of them had experienced stressors, or childhood adverse events, in the past five years; had an interest in violent themes; had mental health symptoms; and exhibited concerning behaviors. About half had been bullied, experienced suicidal ideations or elicited concern in others. This report is just a small sample, of course. Threats diffused with no law enforcement action aren’t included, as are others that didn’t make it into media reports, which was how the information was initially gathered.
How Often Does It Really Happen?
Active shooter events on school property are increasing in frequency, but the growth has been gradual. In 1980, according to the K–12 School Shooting Database run by the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, there were just three active school shooting events the entire year, and it hovered around that number until 2000, when it started to be five or six events each year. From 2018 forward, the number has ranged from nine to 11 events each year.
“After Uvalde, I had my own emotions about sending my own elementary student back to school—how do you feel comfortable with that?”
In 2020, for the first time ever, gun violence was the No. 1 cause of death in children, with the New England Journal of Medicine reporting more than 45,000 deaths due to injury from a firearm. Homicides went up 33%, while suicides rose only 1%. But most of those deaths are not happening at school. Education Week began tracking deaths from school shootings in 2018. That year, and in 2019, there were 24 school shooting-related deaths. In 2020, just 10 of the more than 45,000 children killed by guns in the entire country were killed at school.
Even when you know an active shooter situation at school isn’t common, it doesn’t do much to calm you as a parent. “After Uvalde, I had my own emotions about that, and sending my own elementary student back to school—how do you feel comfortable with that?” wonders Lutes, the high school counselor. Sheldon experienced similar feelings. “You think, Oh it won’t happen in our community, but now I’m going to meet-the-teacher night and asking, ‘What’s your protocol? How often do you practice lockdowns?’ instead of worrying about what they’re learning in kindergarten.”
What Parents Can Do
Texas law requires all schools to complete two lockdown drills per year, but lockdown drills are only part of preparedness. Following a lockdown drill, you can contribute to your child’s readiness for an emergency by talking to them about knowing where the exits are, to run away from gunfire or fireworks sounds and how to escape the classroom—the “run” in the FBI’s Run-Hide-Fight approach, since schools practice only the “hide” aspect. “What [the schools are] essentially doing is practicing the protocol, not all the different situations that could play out,” says Martinez-Prather. “If you can get away, get away. It’s sad to be having these conversations with your babies… but at the end of the day, these events are still statistically rare.”
When kids do have a drill or after a school shooting makes the news, check in with your kids. (Check out the sidebar for detailed recommendations by grade levels.) Ask questions that are open ended, don’t add any additional information a child isn’t ready for, and listen for where they are in processing news or events they’ve been through. With younger kids, Taylor recommends not bringing the situation up unless they do.
“My first impulse when my child came home talking about her active shooter drill was to tell her what the drill was really for, but that’s not the best way to go about it,” says Taylor. For older kids, though, you can probably assume they know. “It’s a tough conversation. I was really hopeful that my 7-year-old hadn’t heard anything [about Uvalde]. But I texted my 15-year-old and asked if she heard.”
Even with older kids, you want to have a delicate approach when it comes to talking about these situations. “That was one of the questions we got at a pop-up meeting I did after Uvalde,” Taylor shares. “[Parents] wanted to know, ‘How do I talk to my kid about this?’ You want to ask them: What have you heard? What do you know? How are you feeling?” Be aware of isolating behaviors—such as excessive reading, gaming, watching TV, or social media use—in children of any age following news about a school shooting. These can be signs of anxiety or depression that should be addressed with a counselor before they get worse.
On the school level, parents should talk to their campus principal and the school board about their concerns and attend meetings held by the district safety committee. Also, keep an eye out for presentations or safety nights held by your school’s safety committee, or even serve on it, adds Martinez-Prather. “Every school is required by law to have a school safety and security committee, and it’s very precise in the legislation. It stipulates who should be on those committees, and there is representation for two parents.”
Geron offers these suggested questions for parents to ask: “What’s your relationship with the entity that provides security? What’s your level of communication? What are things that we can do as parents that can help improve that if it needs to be improved?”
Your biggest impact could be in spreading the word in your community and online about how to spot and report suspicious behavior or activity before it ever gets near school grounds, stresses Dr. Martinez-Prather. “That’s a big piece of it, that in an outstanding number of these case studies, someone always knew something and didn’t report it.”
In late June 2022, an Amazon Delivery Station employee in southeast San Antonio tipped off police about a 29-year-old male coworker. While employees were exiting the building during a fire drill, he commented to her that pulling the fire alarm would be an easy way to group people together in order to commit a mass shooting. Later, when the employee mentioned picking up her kids from school, he told her that now he knew which school to shoot up, and spoke admiringly of the Uvalde shooting. During the investigation, the suspect’s family confirmed that he had purchased an AR platform rifle.
How to talk to your child after a lockdown, drill or a school shooting in the news
- Grades K–5:
- Don’t bring it up unless they do. There’s no harm in shielding them from news about school shootings since they are statistically rare.
- Remember to use simple language.
- Don’t say more than is needed.
- Reassure them that the adults are working to keep them safe.
- Grades 6–8:
- Make a point to do one-on-one activities with your child after a lockdown drill or an event in the news. Chores, errands with car rides, or just watching TV together can give kids a chance to bring up the subject.
- Ask questions about recent events in the news, how they are feeling, and what their fears are.
- Validate their feelings and reassure them about efforts by their school and the community to keep them safe.
- Grades 9–12 and college students:
- Assume they have heard about any events that make the news.
- If they aren’t with you, text or call them to let them know you’re available to talk.
- Rely on open-ended questions: “What have you heard about what happened today?” or “What do you know?” Also, “How are you feeling?” “What’s going on in your head?” and “How are your friends reacting?”
- Watch out for isolating behaviors that can indicate anxiety or depression.
Top image: iStock