Ellen F. O'Connell / Hazleton Standard-Speaker / AP

Guns in schools: Psychologists say defense measures could traumatize kids

One of the most bizarre proposed tactics is an Alabama school’s suggestion that kids hurl canned goods at intruders

On Jan. 16, only about 20 minutes apart, shootings marred what would have been otherwise normal Friday evening basketball games at high schools in Mobile, Alabama, and Ocala, Florida. A student was shot and injured in each case; both survived. They were the 49th and 50th shootings at K–12 schools in the U.S. — calculated by Al Jazeera as incidents in which a gun discharges on school property and a student or teacher is involved but not police — since the December 2012 massacre of 26 children and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This is the second in a seven-part series examining the issues surrounding school shootings in the U.S. The other six parts took stock of where the gun control debate standshow threat assessments are being used to prevent school violencewhy Georgia has seen the most school shootings since Sandy Hookwhy Massachusetts has the fewest guns deaths per capitaNewtown's grass-roots gun reform efforts, and where most gun violence against kids takes place.

VALLEY, Alabama — On a recent Tuesday night, Brandy Walton and her husband scrambled to find a baby sitter for their three kids so that they could attend a last-minute school meeting. About 100 parents gathered at a local auditorium in Valley to hear why their middle school sent a letter asking parents to send their children to school with canned food to be used as weapons to defend against potential intruders.

Walton learned of the plan in an email from the school principal, and she was irate. Her 14-year old son attends the middle school, and her two young daughters go to one of the elementary schools. “I don't want him throwing cans at some deranged person, antagonizing them. I want him to try to hide and get out,” Walton said. “If the schools start implementing this, I will pull them out for home schooling.”

The letter created a storm of media attention, pointing a spotlight at this small town on the border of Alabama and Georgia and on a policy known as counter or “run, hide, fight” that has been implemented in schools and offices around the country since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. The next year the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Education issued new recommendations on K–12 school emergencies, including that all schools teach drills focusing on evacuation and barricading classrooms. The third portion of the strategy, fight, has been controversial.

The recommendations state, “If neither running nor hiding is a safe option, as a last resort when confronted by the shooter, adults in immediate danger should consider trying to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter by using aggressive force and items in their environment, such as fire extinguishers and chairs.” The guide does not mention teaching children to fight intruders.

Some parents, educators and child psychiatrists worry that teaching children to attack an active shooter could traumatize young kids — and even lead to tragedy.

Dr. Laura Montgomery-Barefield, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, questioned the possible effects of making kids hypervigilant about the unlikely event of an active shooter.

“Trauma affects everybody, and the perception of potential trauma can be as significant as trauma,” she said. “Historically, school has been the safe place. If nothing is safe anymore, what does that do to our children? If we buy into the fact that school is not safe, then nothing is safe.”

The National Association of School Psychologists has cautioned schools against using extreme security measures. It stresses that schools are still the safest place for children and notes that even metal detectors and security guards have been shown to increase students’ fear of crime and cause them to feel less safe at school.

Montgomery-Barefield said the high school her kids attend built gates around the school and required everyone to be buzzed through locked doors. She said it made her kids feel less safe, and she worried that the “militarization” of schools encourages the idea “that anything that's foreign is dangerous.” She said schools should “have more discussion about tolerance rather than spending all this money on intolerance.”

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In the two years since the Sandy Hook shooting, schools across the country have employed countless methods to make their campuses safer. Many have hired police officers and security guards, installed double-doored vestibules at entrances and required all guests to call the main office before being admitted into the school. Other school districts have armed teachers with guns or bought bulletproof backpacks and installed bulletproof whiteboards.

In the auditorium in Valley, Special Agent Antonio Mercado, an official from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, tried to distill the tension with a sprinkling of jokes, like how “someone even shot up a beer distributor. Who would do that?” He slowly clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, with a collage of pictures of teens and adults who had attacked schools, offices and universities and a page titled “How to survive.”

“This is what we are going to tell your kids,” he explained. “First is to run. Run like Forrest Gump. Just keep on running.” If they can’t run, he said, students should barricade themselves into a classroom. He showed picture after picture of classroom doors with piles of chairs, file cabinets and desks pulled in front of them. “If you cannot do those two things, fight back. That's where the canned goods come in handy.”

The canned goods are just another weapon, Mercado said, adding, “Have you ever dropped a can of Vienna sausages on your foot? It hurts like hell!” Football gear, a book bag, a stapler — all those things can be used as weapons to distract an intruder. 

“This is what we are going to be telling your kids. It works. It has been proven,” Mercado said.

At the end of the presentation, parents began raising their hands with questions. ““This is a lot for adults. How realistic is it to expect a room of 12-year-olds to do this?” one parent asked. Mercado answered that using items such as cans to fight back against an intruder “has been proven, and it will work, no matter the age.”

Another woman worried about young students and those with special needs. “This drill is going to scare the hell out of them,” she said. Mercado answered, “We were all scared when we learned to ride a bicycle. It’s the same thing. We are just learning a skill.”

It's unclear who came up with the idea to throw canned goods at an intruder, but ALICE, a for-profit active shooter training program that has been implemented in about 1,600 schools, focuses on countering an attack, or fighting back with anything in the classroom. When asked for statistics on how effective it is to teach kids to counter an attack, Victoria Shaw, director of communications for ALICE, noted one case at a high school in Springfield, Oregon, where students tackled an armed shooter and held him until the police arrived. She mentioned no other instances where this tactic has been effective at schools, and there don’t appear to be any statistics.

The FEMA and Department of Education guidelines cite a study of 41 active shooter events that ended before law enforcement officers arrived, with the potential 66 victims stopping the attacker themselves in 16 instances. In 13 of those cases they physically subdued the attacker, according to the report.

ALICE and Mercado stressed that steps like fighting are to be used only as a last resort, when the other two options — run and hide — are not available.

Chambers County School Superintendent Kelli Hodge told CNN that the purpose of teaching kids to throw cans was to ensure that they “not be sitting ducks hiding under desks.”

“You are a sitting duck if you are going to sit in the classroom clutching your soup can, waiting for the gunman to come,” said Amy Klinger, who directs the Educator’s School Safety Network, a nonprofit that trains teachers and students around the country. She worked as a principal and teacher in schools for over 28 years before forming the organization to train teachers and students in active shooter drills. She said her organization does not teach kids to fight back because it’s distracting and ineffective.

Instead, Klinger said, she trains teachers “how to evacuate so they never see that gunman, or how to barricade so that that gunman can never get to them.”

Traditionally, many schools have relied on a technique called lockdown, in which teachers are trained to lock the doors of classrooms, turn off the lights and await further instructions. Such drills have been proved ineffective, and FEMA and the Department of Education issued guidelines in 2013 began instructing schools to train their teachers techniques like evacuation and barricade.

Dan Marullo, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children’s of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham, said that if done properly, these drills can empower students.

“It’s like ‘stop, drop and roll’ for fire prevention. I think teaching kids some basic ways of protecting themselves makes a lot of sense,” he said. “The trick is having drills and preparation, helping kids understand the context. We aren’t doing this ’cause there is an imminent threat.”

He stressed that, statistically, school shootings are incredibly rare. It is much more likely, he said, that children will experience violence at home or in their neighborhood. In June 2014, clinical psychologist Dr. Dewey G. Cornell noted in The Washington Post that children are almost 100 times more likely to be murdered outside school than in school.

“I don’t know when the next shooting is going to come,” said Montgomery-Barefield, “but I can promise you there will be a thousand more instances of bullying every day …How many people when they left that meeting were told, after that meeting, go home and talk to your children about treating people like you would like to be treated. Go home and make sure that your child is not the cyberbully?”

At the end of the meeting in Valley, parents clapped. One woman said she had been furious at the beginning of the meeting but greatly appreciated the training and explanation of how the school would train their kids. But a handful of parents, including Brandy Walton and her husband, left the meeting after an hour. They said they found the presentation and the jokes made during it distracting and condescending.

“I don’t feel like this is being taken seriously about our children’s safety,” said Walton. “I understand that kids need to learn how to defend themselves, but I feel like they were making more of a joke about it.”

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