As lawmakers have struggled to pass gun control legislation in the wake of several school shootings, some administrators have taken matters into their own hands by adjusting their district’s policies and practices.
Watch Us Rise spoke to current students, recent graduates, and teachers from high schools located nearby other schools that have experienced gun violence in the past decade. Some reported changes in active school shooter drills and mental health resources, while others described paralysis.
Active shooter drills
Susan Mitola is a retired special education teacher from Monroe, CT, a town adjacent to where Sandy Hook Elementary School is located. The year after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Mitola’s elementary school required its faculty and staff to become certified in ALICE training, an approach to active shooter drills that, according to its website, emphasizes “proactive strategies in the face of violence.”
During ALICE training, Mitola and her coworkers participated in active shooter simulations. In the first round, they were instructed to follow their school’s former lockdown procedures. Then, individuals acting as the “perpetrators” roamed the schools armed with ping pong balls and attempted to enter the classrooms. Mitola found the results astounding.
“[The ‘perpetrators’] got just about every one of us,” Mitola said. “Even though we thought we were secured, they were still able to get into the classroom. It really made you realize how vulnerable you were.”
Subsequent simulations trained faculty and staff in more effective and proactive active shooter strategies, such as barricading oneself in a room by using classroom furniture. During the 2013-14 school year, Mitola and her coworkers implemented and taught their students the strategies they learned during their training.
“Someone will only try a door for so long,” Mitola said. “It’s not a huge amount of time before they move on.”
Beyond making them feel more secure, Mitola said that students told her that this approach to drills was “empowering.” Yet, the Nashville chapter of March for Our Lives, a student-run gun violence prevention group, emphasizes that such training and drills may not be an adequate solution to school gun violence.
“Teachers have had to come to terms with the fact that they might have to sacrifice themselves for their students, and students have learned how to play dead while shooters roam their schools,” a representative for the advocacy group said. “This is not normal.”
Unlike Mitola, Brianna Seaborn, 17, doesn’t believe her school’s shooting prevention plan simulates or would be effective in a real active shooting. Seaborn is a senior at a private Catholic high school in Fairfield, CT, about 30 minutes away from Sandy Hook. During lockdown drills at her school, she said students and teachers lock themselves in classrooms and sit silently against the walls. Seaborn said the training “makes things seem as safe and calm as possible;” it was not modified after the Sandy Hook shooting.
Shravya Vasireddy, 20, similarly said her high school did not adjust its shooting prevention drills after the local 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Douglas High School is located around 30 minutes away from Vasireddy’s public high school in Delray Beach. She was in tenth grade when the incident occurred.
“We would lock the classroom door, close the blinds, and everyone would just huddle together,” Vasireddy said. “That was really it.”
Sarah Schwartz, 20, was also a sophomore in high school when the Parkland shooting occurred. Schwartz attended a public high school in Estero, FL, located around an hour and a half from Douglas High School. However, she grew up in Parkland and knew several students at Douglas, including some of the victims. Like Vasireddy, Schwartz stated that her school did not change its safety policies following the Parkland shooting, but that teachers became more serious when engaging in active shooter drills. She explained that her school followed the FBI’s run-hide-fight active shooter plan.
“I feel like the school did as much as they were able to given our district’s politics and policies,” Schwartz said. “I don’t think the drills really helped anything.”
Other safety policies
After the Parkland shooting, Schwartz said some teachers marked their classroom floors with tape to serve as visibility markers—only items in front of the tape were visible from the classroom’s window. Students were instructed to remain behind the tape in the event of an active shooter.
Vasireddy added that her school increased police presence following the Parkland shooting and heightened its entering and exiting policies. However, she stated that these practices, in addition to her school’s drills, were not reassuring.
“It was very meaningless because everything we were doing were things the shooter [in Parkland] had gotten past,” Vasireddy said.
Mental health and social media policies
Although Seaborn’s school hasn’t radicalized its safety policies, it tackled school safety in another way: through mental health and social media intervention. She said her school began more widely encouraging student engagement with its social worker and mental health professionals after the Sandy Hook shooting to help students cope with potential stressors or news of school shootings across the country.
Seaborn also highlighted her school’s social media policies.
“Last year , there was a senior who posted a picture on Instagram with a fake gun, and, when the school found out, they took it really seriously,” Seaborn said. “He wasn’t allowed to walk at graduation.”
Vasireddy stated that her school did not have funding to hire mental health professionals. She explained that students at her school would have benefitted from such help because some were traumatized after the Parkland shooting due to being acquaintances with the shooter. Vasireddy detailed how the shooter had reached out to some of these students in the weeks and months leading up to the Douglas shooting to “catch up,” leaving some of the students concerned that their response or lack of response may have influenced his decision to inflict violence at Douglas. She said these fears were exacerbated by how the shooter’s mental health state was found to be, in part, a cause for the shooting.
Schwartz similarly said her school did not heighten mental health resources after the Parkland shooting. Vasireddy described how she believes her school’s administration tried to downplay the Parkland shooting and didn’t do anything to help affected students.
“Nobody really wanted to talk about it, nobody really wanted to address anything,” Vasireddy said.