Study finds active shooter drills have negative impacts on students


Katharine DeRosa, Staff Writer

A recent study suggests active shooter drills in U.S. schools could lead to depression and anxiety among families and employees.

The report analyzed social media posts from elementary, middle and high school students, teachers and parents before and after participating in emergency preparedness drills.

Participants showed increases in the following mental health concerns:

  • 39% increase in depression
  • 42% increase in stress and anxiety
  • 23% increase in physiological health
  • 22% increase in concerns about death

Everytown for Gun Safety, a non profit organization that works to combat gun violence through research and gun control legislation, published the study with the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Social Dynamics and Wellbeing Lab.

Researchers used Twitter and Reddit to track the behavior of students, teachers and parents from 114 K-12 schools 90 days prior and 90 days after schools participated in active shooter drills. According to the study, 27.9 million tweets and 1,454 Reddit posts were analyzed.

“The impact they described made a lot of sense to me,” said VCU clinical psychology professor Scott Vrana.

The results demonstrated upward trends in stress, anxiety and depression among middle and high school communities. Stress and anxiety increased by 52% for high schoolers, their teachers and parents. Depression increased by 55% for middle school students, teachers and parents. Vrana, who specializes in anxiety disorders, said he doesn’t take much stock in this specific finding.

“When people are exposed to traumatic events, anxiety and depression are pretty highly evoked and they’re mixed up,” Vrana said. “You don’t get anxiety without depression and depression without anxiety.”

The effects of active shooter drills were less prevalent in elementary schoolers than older students, with elementary schoolers experiencing a 28% increase in anxiety and a 30% increase in depression. Vrana said this may have occurred due to the small presence that young children have on social media. He said younger children have a harder time distinguishing fantasy from reality, which is why they are more likely to have nightmares.

“Even if they’re told in advance, look this is just practice, this is just a drill, they’re still going to have difficulty telling practice from a real event,” Vrana said. “They will likely be more traumatized.”

Georgia Tech associate professor Munmun De Choudhury, who leads the lab that conducted the study, said much of the results pertaining to the elementary school level came from parents and teachers because many social media sites don’t allow children under 13 to be online.

“There are spillover effects,” De Choudhury said.

Researchers used Twitter and Reddit instead of Facebook and Instagram because much of the data on the latter two platforms is private, while the former options are more commonly used for public discussion, De Choudhury said.

“Instead of prompting people to recall, you know, potentially traumatizing incidents, we thought that this would be a better approach for us to understand these effects.” — Munmun De Choudhury, Georgia Tech professor

The researchers compared the language of the posts before and after drills, looking for words that signaled changes in mental health.

Increases in words such as “afraid,” “struggling” and “nervous” were tied to increases in anxiety while words such as “therapy,” “cope,” “irritability,” and “suicidal” were tied to increases in depression.

De Choudhury said Everytown for Gun Safety contacted her to conduct the study after learning of negative effects from drills through smaller affiliate activist groups Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action.

Vincent Greene, a VCU senior majoring in English and interdisciplinary studies, said he found the drills “weird” more than anything.

“I do feel like it’s sadly necessary,” Greene said.

The study, released on Sept. 3, recommended that schools increase access to threat assessment programs, mental health professionals, social support and non-punitive disciplinary measures to reduce the chance of gun violence on campus.

If schools do participate in active shooter drills, the study recommends these conditions:

  • Drills should not include simulations of violent incidents.
  • Parents should be told about drills in advance.
  • Students and teachers should be aware the event is a drill.
  • Schools should curate appropriate drills for different age groups and involve mental health professionals in the process.
  • School should address student wellbeing during and after the drills.
  • Schools should track data about the efficiency and effectiveness of drills.

Vrana said he doesn’t know whether these drills should continue since he isn’t an expert in security, but he said they should be evaluated.

“It should be discussed at the community level whether these drills are at all useful in a way that would outweigh the harm they do,” Vrana said.

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