Friday, December 3, 2010

Should there be school shooting fire drills?

by Piper Weiss 

Yesterday, a 15-year-old entered his high school social studies class, armed with two semi-automatic weapons and held 23 students and one teacher hostage. The stand-off ended with everyone being released. The young gunman tragically shot himself and was taken to a local hospital, but no other students were injured.

Tim Baneck, the Superintendent for the Marinette, Wisconsin school district, where the incident took place, credits a recent mock shooting exercise at the school with preventing even more bloodshed. "So the local law enforcement officials as well as the educators were all involved in a mock shooter situation, so it is actually very fresh in our minds in terms of the training we just went through," Baneck told the Associated Press.

The Marinette drill didn't involve students, though their participation has been proposed. In Finland, the education system is compiling a standard response guide for school shootings, hoping to train students to react to that particular kind of emergency, just as they're prepared for a fire.

But are school shootings as much a fact of life for kids now as fires? In the past year, there have been at least 7 school shootings nationwide. It's a small number, but it's no longer as inconceivable as it felt pre-Columbine. From elementary schools to universities, gunmen are targeting students and when they do, chaos ensues. Preparedness and a plan of action could save lives.

Is it worth the psychological risks? Certainly training teachers and law enforcement is good idea, but prepping students for that kind of rare event could be considered alarmist. Children and teenagers are more susceptible to inflated fears. World War II desk drills have been labeled alarmist in hindsight; forcing young kids to consider the constant threat of sudden death in the classroom contributed to a culture of anxiety. The difference is school shootings happen and continue to happen. And instead of fearing a faraway international enemy, kids have to worry about their lab partner or the student in the back of math class. It's a very real threat, but it's also the kind that spurs on paranoia. A practical drill could authorize the idea that every classmate is a potential killer. What effect will that have not just on individuals but on a generation?

Then again, today's media savvy students are already bombarded with the realities of school shootings in the news. Maybe the best way to protect them is to prepare them. What do you think?

[Update: Sadly, 15-year-old Sam Hengel, who's been identified as the student gunman, has died of his wounds. "He didn't really want to hurt anybody," a fellow classmate in the room during Hengel's five-hour stand-off told CBS' Early Show. "He was just very depressed, you could tell."]

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