School Climate & Safety

How a School Safety Scare Tactic Roiled a District—And What Others Can Learn From It

By Evie Blad — December 19, 2022 6 min read
Image of a school hallway paused on a video screen.
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An Arkansas district is in turmoil after leaders showed simulated “in memoriam” videos for a made-up school shooting there, depicting teachers and their children and grandchildren as victims.

The videos, shown at Nov. 30 staff meetings, suggested a hypothetical school shooting in the Prairie Grove, Ark., district on Dec. 14, the 10th anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The fake shooting memorials were designed to reinforce the importance of school safety procedures. Instead, they sparked outrage from many teachers, who said they left meetings in tears. Prairie Grove’s superintendent and middle school principal are on paid leave while administrators investigate.

It’s an extreme example of a practice that is far too familiar in teacher school safety training: the overzealous use of scare tactics and emotional manipulation, said Amy Klinger, co-founder of the Educator’s School Safety Network, an organization that seeks to bring teachers and school administrators into school safety conversations.

“I think oversimplifying it and making it this kind of theater is really insulting and demeaning to educators and to the memory of people who’ve been victimized in school events. And it’s counterproductive to what you are trying to achieve,” Klinger said.

Safety trainings spark emotional responses

While the Prairie Grove videos are an unusual example, other districts have used emotional tactics in their safety training, such as including security camera footage from the Columbine High School shooting or news coverage of other deadly attacks. Some school resource officers have fired blanks in school hallways during safety drills to mimic the sounds of an actual shooting.

Indiana teachers complained in 2019 after they were directed to kneel on the ground and shot with plastic pellets during a shooter-response training.

But teachers, who are already aware of the sad realities of school shootings, need practical techniques—not emotional motivation—to keep students safe, Klinger said.

And training tactics like Prairie Grove’s training videos focus attention too narrowly on the relatively rare occurrence of a school shooting without preparing educators for myriad other safety concerns like fires, medical emergencies, or fights in the classroom, she added.

Teachers need skills like how to properly evacuate a classroom in variety of emergency situations, Klinger said. “We don’t need them to play the what-if game.”

Prairie Grove’s acting superintendent and school board president did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment on the videos.

“We were trying to make a statement to make teachers awareof school safety topics,” acting Superintendent Pete Joenks told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The means by which it was done was a misjudgment. We’re sorry for that, and we’re going to learn from this and apply it to future efforts, and we’re going to move forward in our school year.”

The newspaper obtained copies of the videos through the state’s open-records law, which have been censored to blur out names and images of the children included in them.

Words appear on the screen as somber music plays: “21 students and staff were injured, 36 more were killed.” The videos then filter through a slideshow of hypothetical “victims,” photos pulled from teachers’ personal social media pages without their permission. They were tailored to include photos relevant to teachers at each school.

Teachers stunned and angry

Ralanda Mongold, who teaches 6th-grade math at Prairie Grove Middle School, said she was the first to run out of a staff meeting where the video was shown and that many of her fellow teachers followed. She has been an educator for 14 years, the last three of them at the district.

She was shocked when the video included images of her own two children, which were apparently taken from her private Facebook page by someone who had access. The middle school’s principal played the video unexpectedly during a routine staff meeting, she said. Administrators were discussing the importance of keeping classroom doors locked before they played the video with little explanation, Mongold said.

She was stunned when one of the first images showed her children’s names next to a family photo she’d taken on Thanksgiving.

“At that point, I stood up and went to exit,” Mongold said. “I could not watch it. I was very upset. I was in tears.”

She quickly remembered Dec. 14 as the date of a previous mass shooting, though she did not immediately realize it was the 10th anniversary of the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“My mama bear kicked in,” said Mongold, who recalled telling her principal he had “crossed a line” by showing the video. “I was like, ‘Those are my kids!’

“I’m a little bit of a worrier to begin with,” she continued. “I can’t tell you how many times a week I drop my daughter off and think, ‘Please don’t let anything bad happen today.’”

Middle school teachers felt insulted, like they weren’t being treated as professionals, and like administrators had broken their trust, Mongold said.

“I never thought that my administrator would do something like this,” she said of someone apparently accessing her private family photos to add to the videos. “I feel like I can’t trust anybody.”

She said she’s well aware of the need to keep students safe, and she needs resources, not emotional appeals, to do so.

Among her concerns: Teachers learn procedures for safety drills through online modules, and they sometimes give differing directions to their students. In-person instruction from a law enforcement officer would ensure consistency and best practices, she said.

Conflicting school safety messages

Teachers have also dealt with conflicting messages about doors, Mongold said. In the early phases of in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators directed them to keep classroom doors open as a way of maximizing air flow and lowering the risk of virus transmission.

During the meeting where the video was played, teachers weren’t defiant or refusing to take directions on locking doors seriously, she said. They did ask questions about whether they could still allow some student discussion groups to meet in the hallways when there wasn’t space to spread out in their classrooms.

The videos felt like an unnecessary escalation, Mongold said.

“There wasn’t any pushback,” she said. “We just wanted to be clear about what the rules were so that we were following them.”

She has heard from some high school teachers who were comfortable with the video because of how it was introduced in their meeting, she said, but many other teachers remain upset.

The videos also seemed to fuel a fear of an actual shooting on the date of the hypothetical attack. Dozens of Prairie Grove students and teachers stayed home from school Dec. 14, when the district brought in extra law enforcement officers to ensure student safety in response to concerns raised by the videos.

Conquering ‘normalcy bias’

The district has not said who created the video, though Joenks told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette he does not believe students were involved. The district plans to investigate how the video was conceptualized and reviewed, he said.

Klinger, the school safety consultant, warns about “normalcy bias,” which refers to the tendency of people in crisis situations to doubt that an unlikely worst-case scenario is actually happening, leading them to disbelieve or downplay warnings. Researchers have identified normalcy bias in responses to events like earthquakes, forest fires, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

To conquer that normalcy bias, teachers need specific strategies and proper training so they can calmly and quickly respond to a crisis, Klinger said. And schools should adopt an “all-hazards approach” that isn’t narrowly targeted at school shootings, she said.

Provoking an emotional response isn’t necessary, Klinger said.

In proper school safety training, administrators are “concentrating on the skill, not the emotion behind the skill,” she said. “You are lowering the temperature so that people feel more confident and competent.”

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