With school shootings an increasingly common fear, some students and teachers have started writing their own wills

Colorado Springs high school teacher participating in an active shooter simulation.

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Colorado Springs high school teacher participating in an active shooter simulation.
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Getty

  • An article in Teen Vogue found that some teachers and students around the country have begun writing last wills in case they die in a school shooting.
  • Fearing a school shooting, teachers, administrators, and even a sixth-grade student have all started planning for the worst.
  • Insider spoke to a former financial aid administrator at a public university in the Northeast who said school shooter protocols left him fearing for his life and prompted him to write letters to his loved ones in case he died.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The thought of being caught in the middle of a school shooting has become such a real terror that some students and teachers are writing their last will and testaments in case they’re shot.

That sad reality was highlighted in a Teen Vogue feature last month by De Elizabeth. The story documented the accounts of several teachers and students whose collective fears over school shootings have forced them to start planning for their own deaths. One teacher featured said they felt compelled to make a will following the shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year. Another cited the more recent tragedy in El Paso, Texas, as their call to action.

“School shootings were always in the back of my mind as a possibility, but something in the conversation shifted after Parkland,” one of the teachers told the magazine. “It felt like I should think about what should happen to my own family if something were to happen to me.”

Students and family members holds hands around a makeshift memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed on February 14, 2018.

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Students and family members holds hands around a makeshift memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed on February 14, 2018.
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Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A high school student, who went by the pseudonym Tony, told Teen Vogue that the El Paso and Dayton shootings had led him and his friends to make group wills. In Birmingham, Alabama, last year, a sixth-grader wrote a pseudo will to his best friend, leaving him his cherished PlayStation 4 in the event he was caught in a shooter’s path.

Mass shooting fears extend to college campuses

The fears of potential shootings are not limited to just elementary schools and high schools. In an interview with Insider, a former financial aid officer of a Northeast public university said the fear of a potential school shooting prompted him to write letters to friends and family so that his death wouldn’t be the last thing they remembered.

During his time as a financial aid officer, the former employee, who asked to remain anonymous but whose employment was verified, remembered going over school shooter protocols. He spoke of desks with buttons underneath that called local police and he recalled regular shooter drills. With his office located at the end of a long hallway, the former employee said he, “would constantly do the math” of how long it would take him to bolt from his office and spring to safety if a shooter were roaming the campus hallways. “Can I make it to the back door?” he would ask himself. “Can I barricade my office door?”

Over the past two decades, the former financial aid officer had seen the news reports of shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, but it took a 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon for him to believe it might actually happen to him.

“It’s much easier to be disconnected from the fear when it’s happening to other people,” he said. “When it starts happening in the types of places where you go often, it is scarier. You think ‘oh, it won’t happen at this specific place,’ but then you realize that there was nothing special about Newtown before the shooting there. Why can’t it happen here?”

Some mornings, the former financial aid officer said he had to force himself to leave his house out of a fear that he wouldn’t make it home to tuck his children in bed at night.

“I thought a lot about how that would affect them, and I wanted them to not be sad, angry, or hurt.”

Nearly 60 incidents of gunfire on school campuses have occurred this year

While instances of students and teachers writing wills may be uncommon, general fears of mass shootings are anything but. In the past six years, 64 people have died and 10 have been injured as a result of mass shootings across 41 schools. According to gun control activist group Everytown For Gun Safety, at least 59 incidents of gunfire on school campuses have occurred this year. Those resulted in 10 deaths and 39 injuries.

All of those shootings have led to a situation where 57% of US teens say they worry a shooting could occur at their school. That percentage comes out of a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018, not long after the shooting at Marjory Stone Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The fear isn’t limited just to children. In that same survey, 63% of parents said they were “at least somewhat worried about the possibility of a shooting happening at their child’s school.”

Students at a Missouri elementary school take part in a school shooting simulation.

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Students at a Missouri elementary school take part in a school shooting simulation.
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Screenshot/NBC News

The long term psychological effects may extend beyond the actual attacks, as well. To prepare for a potential shooter, schools all around the country have started incorporating realistic lockdown drills where teachers shut off the lights and students hide in the corners of classrooms to avoid being seen. An analysis by The Washington Post found that as many as four million students may have participated in the lockdown drills in 2017. New research suggests that these drills may actually traumatize kids.

Getting caught in a shooting is unlikely, but the fear it creates is real

School shootings are on the rise, but the average student or teacher is still statistically extremely unlikely to find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Every year, Safe and Sound Schools, a group focused on enhancing school safety throughout the country, surveys students, teachers, and educators asking them what their major concerns are. In an interview with Insider, Safe and Sound Schools co-founder Alissa Parker said active shooters were by far the most pressing concern among those surveyed. When asked about safety threats the schools have actually experienced though, active shooters did not even crack the top five (which included bullying, vandalism, and assault).

Students gather and reunite with their parents at a fast food joint across from Arapahoe High School, the site of a deadly school shooting in 2013.

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Students gather and reunite with their parents at a fast food joint across from Arapahoe High School, the site of a deadly school shooting in 2013.
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REUTERS/Evan Semon

“It shows that our perception and our reality are very different,” Parker said. “While a school shooting is a possibility, it’s not likely. But we still have to prepare for it.”

Rather than hire more armed guards, or even train teachers to use firearms (a form of safety methods Parker referred to as “band-aid” solutions), Parker advises schools to focus more on empowering classrooms.

“The fear [of shooters] derives from a feeling of being powerless,” Parker said. “We want to give them [schools] some of that control back.”

That empowerment, according to Parker, starts with having more mental health professionals available at schools and opening a line of communication between teachers, students, and parents to talk openly about safety.

“The reasons why a lot of times students don’t feel like their school is safe is because they see what is happening when the teacher turns their back,” Parker said. “They see when someone is not following safety standards.”

And while it may be true that shootings are statistically less likely than car crashes or cancer, the random and senseless violence of mass shootings can still cause plenty of anxiety and harm.

“I think anyone that thinks shootings in America aren’t that big of a deal because 500,000 people die of heart disease and 200,000 people die of the flu each year are kidding themselves,” the former financial aid officer employee said. “It’s a huge deal because it is happening everywhere with no warning. It’s scary.”