How to Talk With Kids About Active Shooter Incidents
Bad people sometimes do horrible things and parents should talk with children to help prepare them for emergencies. Even something as terrible as an active shooter. These discussions are not always easy, but all of us, even kids, are already thinking about it and ignoring the issue is not going to make anyone safer. Like other emergency situations, such as fires or earthquakes, discussing the potential danger will help to enhance safety and decrease anxiety; so long as the discussions are age-appropriate.
As a society, we have accepted and embraced the need for safety-related education program for kids. For instance, Stop, Drop and Roll is taught to children as what to do if they catch fire. If not presented in an age-appropriate manner, this could traumatize a child with the fear of being burned alive. But the concept is presented in an age appropriate manner and children are the safer for it. Fire safety efforts have been so successful that that no child has died as the result of fire in a U.S. school over 50 years. We do need to expand these efforts to address all hazards that pose a credible risk to children.
My children’s book “Teddy is Ready” is designed to assist parents and teachers in expanding the success we have earned in fire safety by explaining to children that fire and other emergencies can happen and that learning about emergencies can help to make them even safer. The book was specifically written in a way to help kids visualize a successful response to bad things so they are less likely to panic in actual emergency.
Mental visualization is a vital element of emergency preparedness. Thinking about how you will respond is every bit as important as conducting actual drills or training. In the book, when Teddy thinks about a safety-related topic, he pictures himself as Captain Ready. Captain Ready never does anything dangerous; he simply sets the example for other kids to emulate. This is important for all emergencies but especially for an active shooter type incident.
The national active shooter defense training programs I’ve developed helped to pioneer the Run-Hide-Fight active shooter survival options. But these programs were not designed to train young children in the last resort “fight” option. Young people lack the ability to discern what is truly a last resort and the physical ability to counter or fight an attacker. Running away from an attacker is not only a viable option, it is very often the best option. We’ve seen evidence of this from the tragedy at Sandy Hook. During the attack, the nine students who fled classroom 10 were the only people who survived from that classroom. I am not suggesting that if every child in that classroom would have run, every child would have lived, but I do believe there would have been fewer fatalities.
Because many young parents and teachers grew up participating in lockdown drills in school, the Run option is a considerable paradigm shift from cowering in a corner during a lockdown drill. The reality is a moving target is dramatically harder to shoot and the act of running can remove the child from the field of fire. When under direct contact with an active killer, remaining stationary and waiting for law enforcement does not make children safer. This includes playing dead. Playing dead can only work if others around you are already dead. This is not a concept that should be discussed with children.
When to Have the Discussion
Dinnertime can be a good time to discuss this topic with children. It does not create anxiety before school and it gives the child plenty of time to ask questions and process the information before bedtime. What the child should understand is that if they feel they are in danger, they have permission to get away. If they see a bad person with a gun or someone hurting others, it’s time to run to safety. Stranger Danger is not a new concept. Teach your kids to run away from bad people.
The Run Option
Make sure they understand that they are what matters, not their things. Backpacks and other things can be replaced. People are more important than things. Just run.
This is also a good time to talk to them about safe places that are very close to the school, such as a church, another school or even a fire station. Tell them a place they could run to in case the teacher does not or cannot help them. Give them a destination they can visualize.
Depending on the age of the child, you can explain that when they run, they can use any exit or window available to them to get away and explain to them what “EXIT” signs are. For instance, if they are in a school cafeteria, it would be ok to run through the kitchen to escape.
The Hide Option
If they cannot Run, think hide and seek with no rules. Do NOT encourage them to just hide under a table. Teach them how to lock doors and move away from door vision panels so they cannot be seen. The goal of Hide is to keep the bad person out of the room. If the bad person does “find” them, tell them to Run fast. The act of running away and moving is more important than a specific destination.
The Fight Option
The “Fight” option in Run-Hide-Fight is for adults. Telling a child to Fight or counter an active shooter is not recommended. Their best option is to Run and escape. Teddy in “Teddy is Ready” does not have super powers and neither does your child. Teddy is a hero because he chooses to be prepared and not scared. Help your child be a hero by talking with them about this incredibly important topic.
Children should know that being afraid is a completely normal response to an emergency. They should also understand that even though they might be afraid, they can still take measures to protect themselves. When we are frightened, not wanting to move can be a totally normal, yet unhelpful response. Taking deep breaths is a very effective way to help control anxiety during a scary situation.
Practicing this simple breathing exercise can help your child overcome fear and anxiety.
Key Points to Emphasize to Students
- It is OK to run away from someone that is trying to hurt you or others.
- If at school, follow the teacher’s instructions, but you may have to run away without the teacher.
- Talk to your child about your neighborhood and the area around the school. Identify safe places, such as a church or fire station, they could go to if they had to run away from the school.
Protecting our children is incredibly important and terribly imperfect, but these age-appropriate strategies will them even safer.
Brad Spicer is the founder of SafePlans, a leading provider of all-hazards preparedness solutions; including a DHS designated anti-terrorism technology and national active shooter prevention and survival program.