Kansas schools must hold 16 drills a year. Is that too many? (The Kansas City Star)

Students everywhere know the drill.

Go outside for a fire drill. Huddle in a restroom or tuck your head under your arms for a tornado drill. Hide away from the door and turn off the lights for a crisis drill.

Kansas schools average a drill about every 10 school days. They must hold at least 16 this academic year, including nine crisis drills that help prepare students for active shooters and other threats.

Educators and lawmakers say that’s simply too many. The drills disrupt the school day and take away valuable instruction time, they say.

“I do feel a little bit like Goldilocks right now. First we had had too few, then we had too many,” Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said.

This is the first school year districts are required to hold crisis drills. That requirement expires after this year if lawmakers don’t extend it.

Some Kansas lawmakers want fewer drills. Senate Bill 128 would require nine drills a year — four fire, three crisis and two tornado.

The Senate approved the bill unanimously on Wednesday.

Monica van der Zee, a nurse with three children in the Shawnee Mission district near Kansas City, said she wasn’t really aware of the number of drills until she spoke to her children about it. It turns out they’re drilling quite often.

“I think it’s probably a waste of time. I would like to know if there’s any evidence showing that these kind of drills actually make the kids any safer. I would like to know, if there’s not evidence, why we’re doing them,” van der Zee said.

She questioned the classroom time that is taken up by drills, especially in a year where the number of snow days may force the district to tack on days at the end of the school year.

Crisis or lockdown drills have become common across the country as schools try to prepare staff and students for the nightmare scenario of a shooting. A full 70 percent of public schools drilled on responding to a shooting during the 2013-2014 school year, up from less than half a decade earlier, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The drills have prompted concerns elsewhere and have been questioned in publications such as Education Week and The Atlantic magazine. And there are competing views about how children should be trained.

John Poole, a safety expert with Kansas-based Poole Fire Protection, told lawmakers that they should consider three fire drills, three tornado drills and three crisis drills a year. Doing more crisis drills than any other type of drill may send the message that there is a bigger risk of a shooting or other crisis than there is of a fire or tornado, he said.

Kansas schools typically have 50 to 60 fires every year — often in trash cans or chemistry labs — Kansas State Fire Marshal Doug Jorgensen said.

School shootings, while gripping public attention, remain a relatively rare cause of death for children. During the 2014-2015 school year, 20 of the 1,168 homicides of school-age youth occurred at a school, according to a 2018 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, a teachers union, said three crisis drills are probably enough if they’re done well. Desetti said it’s an “absolutely horrible place to be” for teachers who have to explain the purpose of crisis drills to students, especially younger ones.

Desetti recalled the air raid and nuclear attack drills he experienced as a child. He remembers “being confused and terrified all at the same time, not understanding what it was about.”

“I think it’s probably that way for a lot of young children — very difficult to understand why you have to do this, why it’s necessary,” Desetti said.

Wichita public schools – among the state’s largest districts – supports a total of nine drills. The reduction “decreases the negative impact drills have on instructional time and provide schools adequate time to prepare and implement the drills in a meaningful way,” Terri Moses, the district’s division director of safety and environmental sciences, said in a statement to lawmakers.

G.A. Buie is the director of the United School Administrators of Kansas and the Kansas School Superintendents Association. The “overwhelming response” from talking to principals around the state is that there are too many drills, he said.

“When you’re doing a lockdown drill, those can be very time consuming,” Buie said.

He also expressed concerns about student anxiety at the elementary level from drills and student apathy toward drills at higher grade levels.

Assuming the Senate passes the bill, it would still have to be passed by the House before going to the governor for her signature.

Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, is a former early childhood educator and a supporter of reducing the number of drills. She said she is sensitive to the stress put on students with the current number of drills.

“I think this bill is a move back in the right direction and it meets our safety needs within our schools,” Pettey said.

For van der Zee, the high number of crisis drills don’t traumatize her children. But she said she can certainly see how it would affect others.

“How can you possibly feel safe at school when you have to practice hiding?” she said.


This article was originally published on The Kansas City Star website, here.