The beginning of the school year usually elicits excitement and anticipation for learning. However, as children return to school, so do the anxieties and fears of potential school shootings.
With New York City public school students preparing to head back on Sept. 7, state Senator Andrew Gounardes and Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon paid a visit to P.S. 133 the William A. Butler School in Park Slope to advocate for more effective and fewer lockdown drills in an effort to improve student mental health and wellbeing.
Lockdown drills may do more harm than good
New York State has one of the most intense lockdown drill mandates in the nation – requiring schools to hold four drills per year. Lockdown drills prepare students and teachers for life-threatening emergencies, especially school shootings.
While the drills are intended to educate students and faculty on how to remain as safe as possible during active shooter situations, recent studies have shown that lockdown drills correlate to higher rates of depression, anxiety and rates of physiological health problems in children.
Additionally, experts at Everytown for Gun Safety, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have all raised concerns whether or not it is realistic or feasible to expect children to retain all of the information they are supposed to learn during drills.
In order to maintain school safety as well as student mental and physical wellbeing, Gounardes and Simon collaborated to introduce new legislation to reduce the number of annual drills from four to one and to alter drills to ensure that they are age appropriate and trauma-informed. The bill would also introduce statewide, standardized drill training.
“As students and teachers return to school this week, they also return to the reality that they are forced to participate in the terrifying and traumatizing ritual of lockdown drills,” said Gounardes on Tuesday. “But we know now that there’s a smarter and better way to do this than continuing with our out-of-date lockdown drill policies. We need to make sure that our kids both feel safe and are safe at school, even if the worst happens — and we also need to make sure that we aren’t causing our children more trauma with excessive and ineffective lockdown drills.”
The bill would require schools to alert parents and guardians when lockdown drills occur, and allow guardians and children to opt out of drills if needed. It would also require schools to provide special accommodations for students with existing mental and physical needs who may be particularly sensitive to drills, introduce a new mandate requiring an age-appropriate explanation of drills and providing thorough and standardized training for participating teachers and faculty.
Currently, public school teachers in New York State get little to no formal training on how to conduct drills, instead relying on independent trial-and-error.
Drills vary widely throughout different classrooms and schools, and some teachers reportedly receive no notice of when a drill will occur or how to explain the drill to their students. The new bill would ensure that teachers receive the required training and support needed not only to effectively run lockdown drills, but also to eradicate as much anxiety as possible.
“It’s time to ensure that children not only are safe in school, but feel safe as well,” Simon said in a statement. “Our bill mandates effective practices for conducting the drills we mandate, and requires that we instead look to evidence-based solutions to reduce gun violence in our state.”
Many parents applauded the effort by both Gounardes and Simon to adjust the state’s approach to drills as well as the prioritization of student wellbeing and mental health.
Students, parents, and experts say reform is needed
“Some 3 million students are back to school in New York this week and safety is top of mind for parents, educators and government leaders,” said Robert Murtfeld, a father of two children in New York City public schools, in a statement. “Lockdown drills were designed to protect our children from the very unlikely scenario of a school mass shooting, but the system is deeply flawed and in dire need of reform.”
Experts also chimed in to voice their approval for the proposed changes.
“The New York State American Academy of Pediatrics, representing more than 5,000 pediatricians from across the state, is proud to support this proposal to reduce New York’s harmful lockdown mandate from four to one,” said Dr. Warren Seigel of the NYS American Academy of Pediatrics. “Passage of this bill will require the more than 700 school districts across our state to standardize and incorporate trauma-informed and age-appropriate lockdown instruction that will protect the mental and physical health and well-being of our students, including those with disabilities. We further believe that teachers and parents working together play a significant role in ensuring children’s safety.”
Last year, Fort Hamilton High School was forced to undergo repeated lockdowns and evacuations in response to multiple bomb threats. In February, authorities were forced to lock down a Williamsburg high school just as school let out when three people — including two students – were shot outside the building.
Students vocalized their own concerns of drills traumatizing students, especially young children, and urged elected officials to do more to protect children from gun violence.
“Young people don’t need more trauma, instead we need more legislators who will pass tangible reform,” said Raghav Joshi, a student and member of March For Our Lives in New York. “We’re done being known as the lockdown generation. We’re done being told to run, hide, and fight. And we’re done with leaders who’d rather cross their fingers and put the onus on us to survive, instead of addressing the root causes that are fueling this epidemic.”