Are active-shooter drills in NJ schools doing more harm than good?
Among the several gun-related proposals announced by Gov. Phil Murphy in April is a more informed approach to active-shooter exercises conducted in schools, to ensure that the lessons learned by students aren't outweighed by the stress caused by these drills.
Under his proposal, the Department of Education would get the green light to establish standards for lockdown drills that encourage "preparation over simulation" — no fake gunshots in the hallway, no rewards for children who "fight off" the shooter, and better training for educators charged with implementing the drills, for example.
"New Jersey schools currently are required to conduct active shooter exercises but guidelines are vague on how drills should be conducted," the Murphy Administration said on April 15.
Whether or not guidelines will actually take a clearer shape is currently unknown. Similar to legislation included in Murphy's plans, further action is needed to make his wish a reality.
"There isn't specific enough training on this," said Nancy Kislin, a child and adolescent psychotherapist in Chatham, and the author of the 2019 book Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence.
Kislin had conversations with Murphy and his team prior to the pandemic, about her concerns over the unregulated model of active-shooter lockdowns in the state, and the potential trauma caused by exercises that make children believe there actually is an armed individual, or more than one, inside their school.
Even during the pandemic, Kislin said, children learning from home have witnessed lockdown exercises over Zoom and other platforms — drills are still occurring for those who happen to be learning in person on the chosen day.
"Now we've taken what hopefully is the safety of a child's home, of their bedrooms, and now we've brought that kind of fear there," Kislin said.
Kislin said she is in the process of helping to draft a bill that would ensure schools refer to these exercises as "drills" — just as they would during a fire drill, students would know they're only practicing their response, and the threat is not real.
Kislin is also pushing for parents to be notified on drill days; that's a recommendation from the Governor's Office as well.
"That way, you are empowered to talk to your child about that," she said. "If the parents don't know this is happening, they can't help their children process it."
Through interviews for her book, Kislin has learned that active-shooter exercises can vary drastically from one spot to the next, even from classroom to classroom in the same school, she said.
Under New Jersey law, every school must have at least one fire drill and one school security drill each month. All school employees are required to receive annual training on school safety and security.