PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Next week marks six years since Newtown in which 20 first graders were gunned down inside the walls of their school.
In Texas, Florida and Kentucky, images from 2018 shock the soul and weigh heavily on the heart.
Today, we see the legacy of the gut-wrenching tragedies, where lockdown drills and active shooter training takes place in a vast majority of classrooms across the country, even for the smallest of children.
Some believe those exercises may do more harm than good even though shootings at U.S. schools have become all too common. So far this year, there have been at least 23, according to the Washington Post. That’s more than any other year since the Columbine massacre in 1999.
“You have to start thinking in today's time, what will I do when it happens? Not if it'll happen, but when it happens,” said Eric Frost, a safety and security consultant in Yuma.
The retired law enforcement officer conducts intense, active shooter drills using a fake gun.
“It’s a scary situation, but always be keeping your wits and always be thinking,” said Frost.
He travels the country teaching teachers and kids how to stay safe.
“What we teach them is how to run, how to hide, how to fight, but also how to be aware,” explains Frost.
He even teaches preschoolers.
“They’re fast. They can get in their hiding areas pretty quickly,” described Frost.
For teachers, he takes them through separate scenarios that simulate the real thing.
“When they act fast, the children will follow. If the teacher delays or loses her mind or panics, that's when we teach time is of the essence,” explained Frost.
He uses a different approach for the little ones.
“We teach them that it's not scary. We don't do the tactics that we do for adults, but they just know to be quiet and they think it's a game so they don't even know they're in harm's way,” explained Frost.
Yet many of them do know the activity involves a pretend bad guy or an intruder. That fear is why a Tucson mother believes active shooter drills could do more harm than good, especially for kids ages 6 and younger.
“I think at that age, what’s really important is instilling social and emotional learning, rather than traumatizing them,” said Dr. Heidi Pottinger.
She’s heard stories about kids in lockdown having to go to the bathroom in buckets while hiding in the closet. She also described seeing the effect of these drills firsthand with her 4-year-old son.
“He started to chew his nails. He was afraid to go to the bathroom by himself in our house. He also started to play lockdown. He would say things like, ‘We have to hide,’” explained Dr. Pottinger.
She said at a recent football game with his dad, her son started crying when fireworks broke out at a football game, saying he thought there was an active shooter. Up to that point, Dr. Pottinger had no idea her little boy even knew what that was.
She said that anxiety could have consequences far beyond the classroom.
“I think we’re all kind of terrified because we have to practice what we would do in the event of being hunted by somebody,” she said.
Dr. Pottinger heads up clinical investigations at University of Arizona's College of Public Health. She said part of the brain cannot tell the difference between real and pretend stress.
“As these children and their teachers are hiding in the closet or under the furniture or wherever, if someone comes to rattle the door to check as part of the drill, the amygdala fires regardless, and sends the central nervous system into fight, flight or freeze,” explained the family and child researcher.
Dr. Pottinger said at that point, stress hormones fill the body and should be released immediately.
“If you start to trigger the nervous system or if they are growing up in an environment that is stressful — if there’s food insecurity, if there’s domestic violence, if they have a history of trauma — it can start to build up where the body can no longer release those hormones and it stays locked,” she explained.
Dr. Pottinger pointed to a prominent study on adverse childhood experiences (ACES) which shows the resulting chronic inflammation can affect both the brain and the immune system’s abilities to function properly.
“What they’ve shown too is that it has long-term implications for developing chronic disease later in life and developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later in life,” explained Dr. Pottinger.
She believes fear is at the center of many of these active shooter drills.
“This is a fear-based way of dealing with the problem. This is a reactive solution rather than a health-promoting solution,” she said.
Frost said they try to deal with fear constructively.
“We always teach awareness over fear. It’s not scary once you start learning that a lot of this can be avoided just by paying attention,” explained Frost.
He agreed the focus should be on prevention by identifying a person with issues ahead of time. According to the data compiled by the Washington Post, the average age of a shooter is 16.
Those numbers also show more than 140 students and teachers have died at the hands of a gunman on campus over the past 20 years, and while the threat is rare, it’s real.
“In an active shooter situation, somebody’s gonna lose their life,” said Frost.
He said his job is to make sure everyone is equipped to act, even while some believe the training can be too traumatic for little kids who may hear more about it from siblings or on the news.
“If it’s done wrong, the training can be that way. The way my company conducts it, they never hear a gunshot. They never hear anything. They think that they're the best hiders in the world,” explained Frost.
Researchers like Dr. Pottinger call gun violence a health crisis but say their hands are tied, when it comes to compiling the data.
The federal government does not track school shootings because of the Dickey amendment, pushed for by the NRA in 1996, which took away the funding for research.