Are School Lockdown Drills the New Duck-and-Cover?

Apr 30, 2018

A teacher from New Jersey at the March for Our Lives in Manhattan on March 24, 2018.
Credit Mary Woesner

Children of the Cold War grew up ducking under their desks to practice for the possibility of a nuclear attack. Now, nine out of ten public schools hold lockdown drills to prepare for an active shooter scenario. One psychiatrist wonders if we know enough about the long-term mental health effects of forcing kids to confront, even act out, these violent and deadly threats.


The 1952 government film “Duck and Cover” stars Bert the Turtle, who hides in his shell when a stick of dynamite shows up nearby. The movie was shown to schoolchildren during the cold war as a way to teach kids how to respond in the case of a nuclear bomb.


The intention was good, but there’s some evidence that duck-and-cover drills caused American kids to be more anxious about the future. Surveys conducted in the 1960s and ‘70s found that the drills made some children feel bewildered, fearful, helpless, and powerless. Some developed a profound sense of fear about the future, or a distrust of adults.


Psychiatrist Mary Woesner, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a psychiatrist at the Bronx Psychiatric Center, sees strong parallels to today’s lockdown drills, and says we need to think more about how drills are conducted and what the long-term mental health consequences might be.