Teaching Students to Overcome the Fear of Active Shooters

September 20, 2020 jill Blog


By Scott Coleman

There is no question that active shooter incidents are on the rise in American schools. In 2018, twice as many students and teachers were killed in acts of targeted school violence than active-duty U.S. military personnel during the same time period. Meanwhile, mass shootings in other public environments have increased in regularity and lethality, as evinced in attacks carried out at concerts, video game competitions, workplaces, and houses of worship. Tragically, unless this trend abates, a generation of children is facing a greater likelihood of being victimized in active shooter incidents than previous generations.

Students are not oblivious to this grim state of affairs. As our nation witnessed in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, students have mobilized walkouts and other protests, clearly demonstrating their fears and frustrations via civil disobedience and other forms of public expression. Obviously, students are very concerned by the threat of active shooters – but are their teachers? Are their administrators?

As a former police officer who provides active shooter training and education to K-12 schools, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many students, teachers, and administrators in different public and private schools. During a pilot study at a Southern California high school, I spoke to a classroom full of student leaders representing each grade. As I asked them to express their thoughts and feelings about the active shooter phenomenon, a young lady representing the junior class raised her hand. Despite the fact that she was wearing baggy pajamas emblazoned with cartoon characters (it was pajama day at the school), she spoke with articulate authority: “We are the generation of active shooters…” she then pointed to me, my colleagues, and finally to her teacher, saying, “…and you just don’t get it.”

I, along with the other adults in the room, were stunned by this statement. As emphatic murmurs and nods of agreement bubbled up from her fellow students, she continued: “We’ve never known a time when active shooters weren’t killing kids in school. You guys didn’t have to deal with this when you were growing up.” For the first time, I realized that this child had grown up with the threat of active shooters percolating in the back of her mind. She never had the luxury of feeling completely safe at school, and unfortunately, students have a very hard time learning when they don’t feel safe.

For decades, educators have incorporated the concepts of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into their classrooms. For instance, schools long ago realized that students would have a hard time focusing on math and history if their basic nutritional needs were unmet. As a result, schools now provide meals to students to ensure they aren’t distracted by hunger pangs. While schools consistently meet the basic physiological needs that form the base of Maslow’s hierarchy (food, water, shelter, etc.), they are often challenged in helping students meet their needs on the next level of Maslow’s hierarchy: personal security and sense of safety.

In a pilot study conducted in 1983, Deanna E. Schilling surveyed 200 K-4 students in relation to their fears. She discovered that “gifted” students were afraid of receiving poor grades, while students on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum were afraid of being attacked by dogs and robbers. Among all groups, students were concerned about “family members being hurt or being personally hurt through the violent acts of others.” Furthermore, Schilling identified a link between students’ motivations, their fears, and their behaviors in the classroom. According to Schilling, “Most fears and worries are similar among children, and most are in early evidence. This suggests the importance, from a humane as well as a pedagogical view (since most individuals are fascinated by what frightens them), of incorporating subjects about which children are fearful or anxious into the curriculum.”

Student fears have undoubtedly changed since 1983. During a pilot survey conducted by our research team at Safe Kids Inc., we observed teacher-led discussions in K-3rd grade classrooms in regard to “people who hurt” vs. “people who help.” We were shocked to find that students identified some of the following as “people who hurt”: “Shooters,” “The Las Vegas shooter,” “Gangsters,” “Hitler,” “Nazis,” “Killer Clowns,” and “Robbers.”

If students are truly afraid of being harmed in an act of targeted violence, how can we help them process this fear in a healthy way and move into the higher stages of Maslow’s hierarchy: esteem, creativity, curiosity, and a desire for world understanding?

First, we should address student fears in an age-appropriate manner. This is accomplished through honest, loving discussion. Secondly, students should be empowered to keep themselves safe with effective strategies. In regard to the active shooter threat, there are simple ways students (even as young as kindergarten) can react. Adults are often taught to Run, Hide, Fight! Likewise, young students can be taught to react similarly via the H.E.R.O. method: Hide! Escape! Run! Overcome! I understand that the thought of discussing active shooters with young children is daunting and potentially traumatic, but the alternative can be far more harmful.

Aside from the physical dangers of leaving students unprepared for an active shooter incident, there are lingering psychological consequences that can persist into adulthood. While it is tempting to dismiss active shooter incidents as statistically unlikely and shield our students from this traumatic subject, by doing so, we are leaving students unprepared and susceptible to the psychological phenomenon of “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness occurs when a person feels unable to protect themselves from a threat or other stressor. Helplessness turns to hopelessness, which can lead to depression and other manifestations of psychological distress.

To counter the effects of learned helplessness, students can be provided with tools to take back control of their own safety. Their fears can be brought out of the shadows via careful, appropriate discussions, and they can be empowered to take the necessary actions to survive an active shooter incident. According to Dr. Steven Maier, a scholar who specializes in the study of learned helplessness, early life stressors that provide a challenge which can be overcome create a sense of resilience against future stress.

In other words, resiliency is not created by shielding students from their fears, but by addressing their fears in an appropriate way and giving them the tools they need to be safe and feel safe. Students should not identify themselves as the “generation of active shooters,” but rather, as the generation of scientists, poets, doctors, engineers, ministers, mothers, and fathers. With our help, they can become a generation of overcomers.

Scott Coleman is the vice president and co-founder of Safe Kids Inc., a K-12 safety curriculum and consulting company located in Orange County, California, www.safekidsinc.com.