At two minutes before noon on Friday, December 19, 2019 – the last day of school before winter break – a BluePoint alert was sounded at Bloomfield Hills High School in the building's G-Wing, near the rear of the main building by the courtyard area. The alarm, which looks like a blue fire alarm which can be pulled in case of an emergency, is equipped with a cover to prevent it from being pulled accidentally. The system sounds an audible alert of a male robotic voice repeating, "Lock down! Lock down!" to let those in the immediate area know there's a danger. The system also alerts the police department that the alarm has been pulled.
Students and staff had been trained to "run, hide, fight" in the case of an active shooter situation inside the school, and they successfully implemented their training, with hundreds of students fleeing the school, which has approximately 50 exits, flooding the parking lot, many running to neighboring Bloomfield Township Hall, to nearby LifeTime Fitness, Brooklyn Bagel, Starbucks, Kirk In The Hills Church and other local businesses and community facilities.
In the seconds and minutes following the alarm, students, teachers, first responders and local residents believed Bloomfield Hills High School may have become the next statistic in an increasingly grim and growing data column of schools which have been targeted by an active school shooter. It is still unknown as to how the BluePoint alert was triggered, if it was a false alarm, if students did see a weapon, or if some holiday-giddy students somehow managed to pull it, which experts say is near impossible. What is known is that no one – student, faculty or first responder – was shot or injured, and save the stress and trauma of fleeing a presumed school shooter and drilling for the possibility, everyone is fine.
“The community really rallied together,” said Bloomfield Hills Schools communications director Shira Good.
At the time, school liaison Officer Dave VanKerckhove was already in the school.
"Within seconds he was in the G-Wing and reported what he had heard," said Bloomfield Township Police Chief Phil Langmeyer said. "The building was already starting to evacuate. The students and staff are trained to either run and getaway; to hide and lockdown if they can; and fight if they have to. It's a very simple thing to remember. When this happened, the kids were on lunch.
"Once they started running, they were running."
While no weapon was found by police, there was a gun reported inside the school.
Langmeyer emphasizes, “It was not a drill.
“We've trained and trained for years, but when you get in a real life situation – and we went in thinking there was an active shooter, it's all different. It was stressful on my officers. We were under the impression that there was a shooter in the school.”
“We were fortunate there was no loss of life or injury that day – but there was real trauma for our kids and staff, and probably families and officers,” Good pointed out. “They've trained. But it's a real moment to run into what they thought they were running into. For staff, many had never seen a police presence before. Some students and staff members were hidden and locked down in the building, some for the totality of the building search – that was an hour-and-a-half. That's a trauma that does not go away easily. We're still rallying for kids and staff who need support. It's given us a different perspective.”
For students, teachers, staff and first responders, stress, anxiety and depression are by-products of school shootings, false alarms, and even the school shooter drills that have become part of school curriculums since the first large scale school shooting of the modern era, in 1999 at Columbine High School, when two students murdered 12 other students and one teacher in Columbine, Colorado, critically injuring 15 others before committing suicide. Columbine, now 21 years ago, ushered in an era of school shootings, known by one or two words– Parkland, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech. They have paralyzed students, parents and educators, leading to fear and anxiety over who can enter schools, new safety and security measures, and endless drills as preventative measures. Since Columbine, and by December 2019, at least 245 elementary and high schools in the U.S. had experienced a shooting, killing 146 and injuring 310 students and faculty. But even more than those directly injured, more than 240,000 students have been exposed to school shootings in America since the Columbine shooting.
According to a study released in December 2019, by Stanford University's Institute for Economic Policy Research, researchers have found that local exposure to fatal school shootings increased antidepressant use among students. The study points out that the average rate of antidepressant use among teens under age 20 rose by 21 percent in the local communities where fatal school shootings occurred. The rate increase sustained itself into the third year after a school shooting.
“There are articles that suggest school shootings are the new norm – they're happening so frequently that we're getting desensitized to them – and that maybe for the people who survive, they just go back to normal life because this is just life in America,” said May Rossin-Slater, a faculty fellow at Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. “But what our study shows is that does not appear to be the case. There are real consequences on an important marker of mental health.”
Researchers found a marked increase in the rate of antidepressant prescriptions for youths who were exposed to school shootings, but only for ones which had a fatality. They did not see a significant effect on prescriptions for youths exposed to non-fatal school shootings. The researchers also found no evidence that the rise in antidepressant use was caused from mental health conditions that were previously undiagnosed to the shootings.
According to James Alan Fox, professor of criminology, Northeastern University, there is an exaggeration in the statistics of the actual number of school shootings, which leads schools to overdo school shooting drills.
“What is a school shooting? There might have been a shooting, but it could have been a suicide, an accidental shooting, a (gun) discharge, and no one may have been at school at the time,” Fox said. “Most high schools have thousands of students. Is it a shooting against a student, or a number of students?
“Between 2013 and 2018, there was an average of 6.7 students killed per year, and that includes the Parkland and Santa Fe school shootings,” he pointed out. “Yet, there are aggressive drills, parents are buying their kids bullet-resistant backpacks and bullet-resistant hoodies. It all creates unnecessary fear and stress. But the reality is, the fear is high and the risk is low. The fear of it (school shootings) is magnified.”
“Active shooter drills are so stressful. In the traumatic moment – for all senses, if you're seven, or 15, or whatever age – and you're looking at a guy with a gun, it doesn't matter if it's not a real gun,” said Susan Benson, director of community programs, Oakland Schools, of active shooter drills, some of which simulate shooters with guns. “They're designed to be like a gun. The training is designed to throw you off. Was it driven home because we practiced? Sure. But I shudder to think how a child reacts.
“Our kids are really, really stressed. I can't imagine having the responsibility to disarm an adult with a gun when I was a child,” Benson continued. “We're saying part of the responsibility of staying alive is theirs.”
“Schools are planning for worst case scenarios and are practicing the protocols necessary to ensure their students, staff and visitors are safe in the event of a tragic event. These drills are necessary, but it is very important to do the proper planning and preparation with the kids prior to holding a drill. We need to help students understand that we are doing this in order to help them stay safe,” said Nancy Buyle, school safety/student assistance consultant, Macomb Intermediate School District. “Just like fire drills in the wake of some deadly fires that were killing our students. We continue to have fire drills but very rarely ever have a school fire. It was becoming aware of the threat and learning all we could about it that allowed us to prepare, respond and ultimately prevent them. This is the same thing we are going through now.”
“It's never been easy to be a student, now, adding this on too, it increases the stressors,” said Melvin McInnis, MD, director, Heinz Prechter Bipolar Research Program, University of Michigan. “It undermines the sense of security the individual has in their own security. In our research, we've found it is undermining their perceived role in not being provided with adequate tools or adequate access to complete the task (of feeling secure). From the way I look at it is the susceptibility and vulnerabilities of the individual.
“The thing I fear most in dealing with the gun situation is how it undermines the sense of student security in their school situation,” Dr. McInnis continued. “Our role as a society is to provide a safe environment to go to school – or the perception that it's safe, with all the drills… The child's job is to go to school and feel safe. These drills would not have been considered in previous generations. That is the malignancy of society, in how to deal with guns and the Second Amendment people – the right to shoot.”
Some question if there needs to be a balance, and how many shootings or drills are too many.
Fox, who served on former President Bill Clinton's Advisory Committee on School Shootings, said between 1996 and 2001, there were eight multiple victim school shootings – and then in the four years following the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, there were no school shootings in this country at all.
“People were obsessing about terrorism and Al Qaeda instead of school shootings,” he stated.
Fox asserts that the more we – parents, educators, the media – talk about school shootings, the more we remind children about them, thereby elevating their fear that there could be one.
“Sixty-two percent of kids believe there will be a school shooting – a statistic that is way out of proportion with the actual risk,” he pointed out.
“It's one of those things that's constantly on their minds – they know a school shooting can happen at anytime,” said David Schwartz, PhD, director of the counseling center at Oakland University. “It's unfortunate that we now have a generation where it's just a part of life. There are a lot of reasons why students have this increased stress – and this is one.”
Schwartz, in his 13th year at Oakland University, said he is seeing “a tremendous increase in anxiety on the part of students. For about the last 10 years, we used to see depression first, anxiety second. Now, anxiety is the clearcut number one concern, with depression number two.
“Depression hasn't gone down – it has also increased,” he said, “but anxiety has really increased as the number one issue students are showing and feeling. One of the things we've seen, and research has shown, with national studies of incoming freshmen every year, each incoming class has lower levels of coping skills and lower levels of empathy. What we see is how that plays out on campus. They go from zero to sixty in no time. Many students have no coping skills, and they come ill-prepared to deal with various issues facing them without help, so they very quickly go to the brink.”
Schwartz, like many other experts, feel the repetitive coverage of school shootings by the media, and its immediacy and easy accessibility, play into students' increased feeling of anxiety.
“How easily information is available plays a role (in students' anxiety and depression),” Schwartz said. “School shootings are not a new thing, unfortunately, but as soon as it happens, it's on social media, in the mainstream media, and it's played over and over again. They're aware instantaneously, with a deep increase in fear and anxiety. How can that not cause someone to feel unsafe and insecure?”
“We look at kids who are exposed – whether they've experienced it, read about it or seen it on social media or TV, and through what filter – we know with less sleep, less play time, less free time, it adds to their anxiety level,” said Oakland Schools' Benson.
In the aftermath of the deadly shooting on February 14, 2018, at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed and more than a dozen were injured, a majority of American teens said they are very or somewhat worried about the possibility of a shooting happening at their own school – and most parents of teens are equally concerned, according to a Pew Research Center survey of teens aged 13 to 17 and parents with children in that age range.
Overall, 57 percent of teens say they are worried about the possibility of a shooting happening in their own school, with 25 percent saying they are very worried. Another 29 percent said they are not too worried, with just 13 percent stating they are not at all worried.
There is a slight differential in school shooting fear by gender, with 64 percent of girls saying they are very or somewhat worried about a shooting happening at their school, compared with 51 percent of boys.
Non-white teens expressed a higher level of anxiety than their white peers, with about 64 percent of non-white teens worried, including 73 percent of Hispanics, stating they are at least somewhat worried about a school shooting, compared with 51 percent of white teens.
Parents of teens indicated similar levels of concern as their teens, with 63 percent saying they are at least somewhat worried about the possibility of shooting occurring at their child's school. According to the Pew Center's survey, there are similar patterns that fall along race and gender, with non-white parents and mothers expressing more concerns. Lower-income parents indicated they were particularly worried, with 82 percent of parents with annual household incomes under $30,000 stating they are at least somewhat worried that a shooting could happen at their teen's school, compared with 64 percent of those with incomes between $30,000 and $74,999, and 53 percent who were concerned with incomes of $75,000 or more.
Arash Javanbakht, assistant professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University, said that for some students, witnessing a shooting via the media increases their stress and anxiety to the point they feel as if they have suffered through the shooting, and their feelings can be similar to PTSD.
“Sadly, the U.S. media gives us a skewed version of incidents and trauma,” Javanbakht said. “The media in the U.S. has a big role in exaggerating the intensity of the feeling of the dangerousness of the news, and makes it feel much more dangerous than it is.
“There is the possibility that students watching the Parkland media – that emotionally exaggerated presentation can have a negative impact on people,” he continued. “But for others, from a fact-based perspective, on ways to protect yourself, it can prepare students because we know having a sense of control can have a reduction in anxiety. When we know what to do, we are less terrified.”
“There are hundreds of thousands of schools in the United States. Look at how many actually have had a school shooting – and it is very few,” Fox of Northeastern University said. “Not that we should ignore them, but what we're doing is intensifying the fear, adding more drills, more cameras. And we're sending the message to potential killers that this is what you do – versus in previous generations that have vandalized the school.”
“One of the most important aspects of the healthy development of a child is feeling safe and secure,” pointed out Oakland University's Schwartz. “One of the most unfortunate things in the world we live in is it is more difficult to do that because at any time their school could go on lockdown.”
“How parents deal with it” makes a difference in some children's mental health, Javanbakht said. “Kids look to parents in how to view the world – we have data on that. If parents show too much anxiety, kids learn from them. If parents keep their cool, kids will have less anxiety. Drills, depending upon how they're presented, can be fine. It's necessary for kids to know, but on the other side, it's a reminder that a shooting could happen.”
Javanbakht said that after a drill, teachers and parents should try to do something fun “to alleviate the sense of anxiety. Don't just go home after a drill.”
Birmingham Public Schools and Bloomfield Hills Schools, like all schools in Michigan, practice three drills a year for active shooters, as the state requires. Shira Good of Bloomfield Hills said they practice “run, hide, fight,” which predicates students looking, listening and determining their best options in a certain situation, where you are at a certain time, and where it may be that you are best able to go. At times it might be optimal to lockdown in a classroom rather than to flee.
“It teaches students to find the nearest exit and go,” she said. “Students running are being a target, if there is a shooter. But anyone could be a target. In an active shooter situation you want to protect yourself and get out. If you're in a school, if you're in the mall, and in the food court – you want to get out. Our students are incredibly intelligent individuals. They know what to do. What gets muddled is when they're given too much information. It's 'fight or flight.' 'Run, hide, fight' fits in with that philosophy.”
In Birmingham Schools, they have adopted the ALICE system, a certified program that is a version of run, hide, fight. Deputy Superintendent Rachel Feder said ALICE stands for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.”
“We're moved from the model of a lockdown, hiding under the desk to an active shooter protocol referred to as 'run, hide, fight,'” Feder said, referring to the early school shooting days of Columbine, when students stayed in lockdown as police sought out the shooters.
Feder said in their drills, they never do practice simulations of active shooters. “It's one thing to say to students, 'You have options. You could throw something, you could run, barricade or hide.' It's another thing to actually practice it.”
She believes that to take that next step would increase student anxiety, and wouldn't increase the benefits.
“There are students who are anxious, but we have a wonderful group of teachers who take the time to talk with them,” she said. “We make sure the teachers are open to talking.
“For some kids, it can be reassuring to practice the drills, to know what to expect,” Feder said. “It can alleviate some concerns.”
The week of February 10, 2020, the nation's two largest teachers unions, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, joined with the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, asserting that active shooter drills can harm students' mental health, that they should end unannounced drills or drills that simulate gun violence.
“Everywhere I travel, I hear from parents and educators about active shooter drills terrifying students, leaving them unable to concentrate in the classroom and unable to sleep at night,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia through a release, president of the National Education Association.
Jaclyn Schildkraut, PhD, associate professor, Department of Criminal Justice, State University of New York at Oswego, said, “The fear about drills is most among adults who have never done them. The kids are fine with learning the drills. They like knowing what they have to do. Kids look to adults, and if the adults are stressed, then the kids are stressed. If the adults are calm, then the kids are calm.”
For most kids, they're just going through another drill, said Gigi Colombini, MSW, Institute for Hope and Human Flourishing in Bloomfield Hills.
Most of the time, “they seem more annoyed than frightened, unless they've had some personal experience in their childhood,” Colombini said. “Children believe everything is going to be okay in a community setting – although things can still happen behind closed doors.”
She said that when there is a trauma, whether a school shooting, a death or a suicide of a fellow student, “There's more of a pause. Parents are pulled into the conversation, with more awareness – like a wildfire communication. Schools are trying to figure out how to work with and communicate with kids. But kids have a different way of dealing with big events than adults. Kids will go in and out of something as they work to find ways to deal with it. It's important for them to be together, to talk to each other, to hang out. They're best served by letting our youth have their emotions, letting them go through their own timing and normalizing that. It's not just something you move on from.
“They don't want to push it under the rug. Maybe they'll suddenly want to talk about it three weeks later, when teachers and parents are trying to move on,” Colombini pointed out.
Schildkraut, who is working with and studying two New York school districts for the last two years to study school shootings and drills, notably focusing on mass media, guns and mental illness around school massacres, said, “You can't take away potential tools to keep you safe (by not having drills). The reality is, as much as we hear about school shootings – statistically it's actually very, very rare.”
She noted that homicide, despite its prevalence in the media dialogue, is actually only .1 of all offenses known to law enforcement. As for school shootings – “Now you're getting into a fraction of a fraction,” Schildkraut pointed out. “We're reacting and preparing for something that is very unlikely to happen.”
Yet she admonishes against slacking off against performing cursory school drills.
“We prepare for a plane crash every time we fly,” pointing out that we may zone out as a flight attendant drones on about using the seat as a flotation device – but we know it, or during the muster drill as you get on a cruise ship, no one gets in the lifeboat, but you learn where yours is.
“We still get on the planes,” Schildkraut said.
As for the fear that pervades many parents and children, she gets it.
“No one prepares to send their kids to school expecting them not to come home,” she noted. “There can't be a precedent for when it (something like Parkland) is going to happen – and there had been no training, never been a lockdown drill, and the kids and teachers didn't know what to do or where to go.
“Now, we tell them when a fire alarm goes off, you better make sure there's a fire. Look for a fire. Look for the indicator. See flames, look for smoke, smell smoke,” she continued. “Fire alarms go off for all sorts of reasons. People are fleeing the building, and that can be a target for shooters. The safest place for a student, if there's an active shooter, is behind a locked door. You can take them out of a safe place to an unsafe place.”
As experts disagree – Schildkraut's research and perspective is diametrically opposed to “run, hide, fight,” currently taught to local students, as well as many students across the country. Regardless of the method, anyone exposed is forever traumatized.
“I don't think you can take a kid who has been through a school shooting – it will last the rest of their life. The impact is profound,” said Schildkraut. “Just because they will evidence normality, it doesn't mean they will not experience triggers. I know people who were students at Columbine who still have to be careful when they hear what seems to be a gun shot, or a slammed door.”
GRADING THE RESPONSE
Following two failed proposals, Bloomfield Hills High School came about after residents in the district overwhelmingly voted in favor of a $58 million bond millage in May 2012 to unify the district's two high schools, Andover and Lahser, into one school facility on the previous site of Andover High School. The school, with a capacity for 1,650 students, opened in fall 2015, utilizing a portion of the previous school, but with an open, collaborative design, reflective of newer thinking in education and teaching styles.
Bloomfield Hills Schools Communications and Community Relations Director Shira Good said that school safety was always a top concern.
“When we were considering redoing the high school, we had had Columbine, Sandy Hook was the year of the bond (December 2012), when we were in the very early phases of the design, so it gave us time to pause about open spaces, collaboration,” she said. “We knew we wanted to keep collaborative spaces, openness, and glass.
“We have to be mindful of not just the safety and security risk, but all educational issues,” she continued. “When you think of safety and security risks that present themselves in a school building, a lot of them stem back to the culture. When we talk about mitigating risk, a lot of it starts with our culture. We believe strongly in the power of restorative practices – many believe they repair relationships. If we want to build a culture, we have to look each other in the eye, speak to one another, see each other, see each other's body language. True collaboration is connection. Not all teaching and learning is going to be done in rows or in circles.
“Teaching and learning is messy – hopefully we're engaging the five senses,” noting that years ago, classrooms were built for learners to receive content rather than to be engaged with content. “Teaching has shifted from delivering to facilitating.”
That meant designing the high school in a way that permitted flexibility and adaptability.
Bloomfield Township Police Chief Phil Langmeyer said the openness of the building does present some challenges for law enforcement, which they recognized during the incident on December 19, 2019, but one they understand and anticipated as the district had come to them when it was being designed. “It was the beginning of our security measures,” he said.
“That big open concept does present some issues for us – but it is a school first,” Langmeyer said. “We want safety and security integrated. It's a learning institution first – that's the goal.”
Both the district and law enforcement recognize certain protocols which went extremely well during the incident in December, and areas that need to be worked on. The design of the school isn't the problem, Langmeyer said, but having exit routes and a map of the school available to police is a necessity, as is having a set of keys to all of the classrooms.
“Access to the school is really important,” he said. “We thought we had keys to all of the rooms, and we didn't. We couldn't get into all of the rooms, so we could, and did, sweep the school (looking for an active shooter), and while many students and staff evacuated, some locked down. We told them to stay in place – and then we couldn't immediately get keys to get them out. We did after a while.”
Langmeyer also said he recognized the needed to set up an independent incident command. He said he made the mistake of setting up a command center inside the school, which would have be problematic in the event of a shooter situation.
He said they had 31 officers, as well as officers from Oakland County Sheriff's Department, Berkley, Royal Oak, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Milford, South Lyon, and Troy and Waterford covered other Bloomfield Township situations, so they had to have a clear cut command structure at an incident command.
The biggest issue uncovered by all sides was communications, Langmeyer and Good said, noting that there were too many voices in the mix, whether on social media, speaking to mainstream media, to parents, staff, students, law enforcement and the community.
Langmeyer was emphatic that “as a team we need to have one voice. It's been discussed.”
Good agreed. “The biggest thing to learn from is clear lines of communication. Our organization is one entity. You have the high school team, the school team, police and fire, separate law enforcement organization, and all these outside partners. We debriefed the district crisis team with the police crisis team, and we had a detailed list to learn from.”
Good noted that before the next school year, they will be collecting student cell phone numbers for emergencies, in case they need to text them important information, such as where to meet parents in case of an evacuation.
Hopefully, it's a list that will never be needed.
AFTER DRILLS: MONITORING
David Schwartz, PhD, director of the counseling center at Oakland University, said, “There are a lot of reasons why students have this increased stress – and this is one,” referring to the stress incurred by school shootings around the country and active shooter drills. He, and other academics and mental health professionals have seen a dramatic increase in anxiety among teens and young adults, with a similar increase in depression.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate among people aged 10 and 24 years old increased 56 percent between 2007 and 2017. The report also stated that homicides in that age category decreased by 23 percent from 2007 to 2014, but then increased by 18 percent through 2017 – meaning that teens and young adults have a higher chance of dying by their own hand than by someone else's. Only unintentional injuries causing death, such as car crashes or drug overdose, is higher.
School-related shootings account for less than two percent of all youth homicide deaths, according the CDC report. While school shootings garner huge media attention, they likely don't influence the national homicide rate, the report stated.
While experts in the report note they do not have a clear cut reason for the dramatic increase in teen suicides, there is some hypothesis that social media use is fueling the increase in anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation.
In an effort to spot at-risk teens before they can self-harm, some school districts have hired an email monitoring company called Gaggle, which uses artificial intelligence and trained staff to search school emails for signs of bullying, inappropriate behavior, indications of depression, anxiety, suicide, school violence and other triggers inside students' communications.
Bill McCullough, spokesperson for Gaggle, said, “What we do is analyze communications that schools can access. We're looking for kids who are in crisis – with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, could be violent towards someone else or themselves, involved in child or professional pornography.
“Last year, schools using Gaggle have been able to stop 722 suicide attempts,” McCullough said of the approximately 1,400 districts nationwide who have hired them. “What's astonishing is the year before, (there were) 524 (suicide attempts stopped), so the problem is growing. Every day, over 3,000 high school students in this country attempt suicide, according to the CDC. It's frightening.”
He said Gaggle has also identified about 302 cases of threats to a school which could have been potential school shootings, where it was indicated weapons were brought to school.
Some civil libertarians could have issue, though, with what sounds like “Big Brother” peering through their children's privileged communications.
McCullough said they encourage their schools to be transparent about what they do – and that children and staff have no expectations of privacy with school accounts.
The ACLU did not respond to numerous calls for comment.
“We believe that schools that give students these tools – often without parents approvals,” McCullough said, noting that most parents aren't asked first if it's all right if the school gives their child an email account, they're just granted one. “As a parent, we have no access to the account without asking… Yet when kids are bringing their phones home, they're bringing the bullies home, into their rooms. They're tormented. They're using the school tools to act out.”
When Gaggle becomes aware of a potential suicide attempt or school shooting, what do they do? McCullough said in the 722 suicide attempts this past year, “We alerted the schools, and they've said we saved a life. They'd written a goodbye note.
“We alert the school in real time so they can intervene,” he said. “We do not alert parents because we do not know enough about families and family dynamics. Schools set up emergency response systems to get ahold of. If we exhaust all of them and can't get ahold of anyone, we will call law enforcement.
“We do it because we feel a life is in jeopardy.”
McCullough said more than 31 school districts in Michigan utilize Gaggle, including some in Oakland County, but he declined to disclose them, citing privacy.
“It's very comforting to hear stories of the kids that have been saved,” he said. “It's what it's all about for us, helping students.”