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Why education unions are disputing the efficacy of active shooter drills

Active shooter drills have become nearly ubiquitous in American schools. Although they are intended to prepare students and teachers to protect themselves in case of an armed intruder, the largest education unions in the U.S. say there's little evidence they are effective -- and that they can traumatize children. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow marks two years since the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

    A former student killed 14 students and three staff members and wounded 17 others.

    Amna Nawaz looks at active shooter drills, which are now practiced in more than 90 percent of public schools nationwide, and the controversy surrounding them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, those drills are intended to prepare students and teachers to protect themselves in the event of an armed intruder.

    But, yesterday, the country's two largest education unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, joined with the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety to call for schools to change or end those drills.

    For more on why, I'm joined by Randi Weingarten. She's president of the American Federation of Teachers, representing 1.7 million members.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Randi Weingarten:

    It's always great to be on PBS.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you, you cited your reasons for wanting to end or change these drills: the traumatic effect on students, the lack of any evidence these drills are really working.

    What specifically were you hearing and seeing that led you to believe the drills are doing more harm than good?

  • Randi Weingarten:

    So, you know, we have a gun safety task force made up of a lot of rank-and-file teachers, frankly, who have been through this, like people from Broward, people from Sandy Hook, Newtown.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Who have experienced their own school shootings.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    They have experienced their own school shootings or they have been with people who have experienced it.

    You know, unfortunately, we have too much evidence of what happens in the aftermath of a school shooting. And, about six months ago, when we were having one of our regular meetings, a couple of people started talking about how these active shooter drills had gone really awry.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What did they mean by that?

  • Randi Weingarten:

    They have been — it's like reality TV, and this simulation of an intruder in a classroom.

    And then you saw the story from Indiana where they lined teachers up, execution-style, with pellets. And so it became — we started getting very concerned that the consultants and the safety industry was trying to create simulations that belong on TV, not in schools.

    And what was happening was that kids and their teachers were getting really traumatized. And then we started talking to other people who were saying the same thing, because 96 percent of schools are now doing active shooter training.

    And then you started hearing teenagers saying they're more concerned about this than anything else. So there was a lot of anecdotal evidence.

    And so, between Everytown and NEA and we, we got together, and we basically said, stop. Let's rethink this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You want to put a pause on it while we really look at what we are doing here.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    Just — exactly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the statistic. I want to make sure people do understand this when you hear about these drills.

    Fifteen years ago — lockdowns have been around for a while in some form.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Fifteen years ago, about 40 percent of schools did them. By five years ago, as you mentioned, 95 percent of schools are now going through these.

    But is there any kind of standardization? I mean, does it differ what a 4-year-old hears vs. what a 14-year-old experiences?

  • Randi Weingarten:

    Yes.

    Let me just kind of cut to the chase to say, we're saying, let's make sure we don't do more harm than good here. We know we need to prepare schools for emergency situations, just like fire drills prepare schools for emergency situations.

    But you don't simulate a fire in a fire drill. And so let's actually kind of separate out lockdown, emergency preparation, where kids actually need to know where to go when, and an active simulation.

    And what we're saying is, if there are active simulations — and we are saying, let's really rethink this, but, if there are, number one, parents have to be informed and students and teachers in advance.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Because that's not always the case right now.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    In advance, exactly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    This is a simulation. This is not real life.

    Number two, we have to make sure that there's a real kind of joint preparedness, so that a lot of people are in on what we're trying to do.

    And, number three, it has to be age-appropriate, and we have to couple it with trauma-based instruction or counseling.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meaning after the fact, to see how it affected the children?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Randi Weingarten:

    Even before the fact.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    Even if — half the kids in the United States come to school right now with trauma. So if we do something that is triggering something else, then we are really hurting kids.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about this, because, for all the conversation around active shooter drills, it's worth pointing out these are extremely rare incidents, right?

    Of all gun violence deaths in America, about 36,000 a year, less than 1 percentage point of these happen on school grounds. So, are these drills even really necessary?

  • Randi Weingarten:

    Well, that's part of the reason that we're saying we have to rethink this and that, if they are going to be done, they have to be done under these kind of situations.

    I think we should be spending — schools have to be welcoming and safe environments. And I think we should be spending a whole lot more time on making sure we have red flag laws, meaning, see something, say something.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Based on what kids have been saying in studies, kids — even though these are rare events, kids themselves are scared.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    They are.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There was a recent Pew study that showed 57 percent of teenagers said they're worried about the possibility of a shooting. One in four say they're very worried. Only 13 percent said they're not worried at all.

    So, what — from an educator's perspective, what do we need to be doing to make sure kids feel safe in school?

  • Randi Weingarten:

    I am talking about well-being first, because we have to meet kids where they are, and find ways for them to be safe.

    That's part of the reason why, when we saw that these things actually are more traumatic than what they're trying to solve — they're trying to set solve that if, God forbid, there's a shooter people figure out in a split-second where they're supposed to be and when and have enough practice and muscle memory that they will do it instinctively.

    We can do that without simulating an active shooter. And that's part of what we're trying to do. We got to solve trauma, and help kids be safe and feel safe and feel like a school is safe, not feel the fear of it.

    And I think that we see that teenagers feel the fear of it, because we're doing so much of this active shooter drilling, that it is reinforcing that this could happen in your school tomorrow, as opposed to spending the time getting underneath the emotions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, thanks for being here.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    Thank you. Thank you.

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