Five months after her 8-year-old son went through an active shooter drill at school, one mom made a horrifying discovery: Her child thought it was real.
Donna Provencher, 37, says her son's school district informed parents that students would participate in an active shooter drill "within a general timeframe."
The email came four months after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 fourth graders and two teachers were killed.
"I told him that if such a thing were to happen, it was pretend — it was not real," Provencher, who lives 70 miles away from Uvalde, tells TODAY.com. "Clearly, he either forgot or it didn't register."
Last week, as Provencher was folding laundry, she says her son said: 'Do you remember when the shooter came into my school, like at Uvalde?'"
"My heart stopped," the mom of three says. "He said: 'We had to curl up on the ground. We had to be very quiet. We were told we could be in danger, that someone could come in the room and hurt us and if they did we should play dead."
After processing what her son was saying, Provencher told her son that what he experienced wasn't real — it was just a drill.
"He looked at me aghast and said: 'That was a drill? I thought we were going to die,'" she adds. "It was one of those parenting moments where I didn't know what to say. I wasn't any better equipped to handle the situation than he was."
'He refused to sleep anywhere but in my bed'
Provencher says she's horrified that her son believed he almost died, yet didn't say anything about it for five months. Looking back, she says she recalls a "really inexplicable increase in acting out" at the time of the drill.
"Acting out at school and night terrors, bedwetting incidents and chronic insomnia," she says. "He refused to sleep anywhere but my bed."
Provencher reached out to her the school's principal in emails shared with TODAY.com. The principal confirmed the time of the drill and gave details about how the drill was conducted, adding that the school would "reach out to let you know when we do schedule" another drill.
TODAY.com reached out to the child's school district for comment, but did not hear back at the time of publication.
Dr. Jill M. Emanuele, vice president of clinical training at the Child Mind Institute, tells TODAY.com that if a child believes something traumatic happened to them, their mental and emotional health can be impacted just as if the event was real.
"Let's be super clear about what trauma is: It's the reaction to either an actual or perceived threat," Emanuele explains. "Certainly a child who perceives a threat could go on to develop a reaction or a mental health disorder."
One small 2021 study of 35 people who either participated in or had a child participate in at least one school shooting drill between 2018-2019 found that participants experienced a 42% increase in stress and anxiety and a 39% increase in depression after a drill was conducted. The increase lasted at least 90 days, spanning across different school districts and drill tactics.
In 2020, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group, in calling for an end to school shooting drills, saying they "terrify students, leaving them unable to concentrate in the classroom and unable to sleep at night."
'Leaving the most vulnerable among us behind'
Provencher says her son is "neurodivergent with diagnosed ADHD and clinical anxiety disorder, currently going through the evaluation process for autism."
She says his experience highlights the "intersection between school safety and disability rights."
"These drills can be damaging and traumatic for all kids, of course, but particularly those who exist outside our neat little taxonomical boxes," Provencher says. "If we're going to have these drills in the first place, we need to (conduct them) so we're not leaving the most vulnerable among us behind."
Maggie Moroff, senior special education policy coordinator for Advocates for Children of New York, says open communication between parents and school staff is vital, particularly for students who are neurodivergent or have disabilities.
"It's easy to forget that the drills have real impact on the students," Moroff tells TODAY.com. "There needs to be more conversation, more dialogue, more understanding before and after that potential impact."
How to talk to kids about shooting drills
Provencher was in high school when the Columbine school shooting happened, so she's dealt with the reality of school shootings for years, but she's not used to handling them as a parent.
"It's really uncharted territory for all of us," she adds. "I do think it's incredibly important to be candid with our children in an age-appropriate way."
Dr. Valentina Stoycheva, a clinical psychologist and co-founder and director of Stress and Trauma Evaluation and Psychological Services in New York, agrees.
"It is important to discuss in developmentally appropriate ways the purpose of drills, different types and protocols," Stoycheva tells TODAY.com. "Unpredictability can negatively impact kids."
In addition to consistently reminding children that a drill is not real, Emanuele says parents must "really be in touch with their own anxiety" before having a conversation with their child.
She says that it's also helpful to ask questions.
"You sit down with your child and go: 'I heard that you're having an active shooter drill, do you know what that is?' Start asking questions, rather than lecturing," she says.
Emanuele adds that parents can also use stories like Provencher's to start a conversation.
"You can say: 'I heard this story about a kid who got upset about an active shooter drill,'" she says. "'I'd like to understand what it's like for you.'"