Talking with children and young people about what to do in a terrorist attack

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by Dr Adrian Dwyer, counter-terrorism risk adviser
Terrorism

In recent years, awareness of ‘international’ terrorism in Britain has increased to a level unprecedented in modern history. Children and young people are exposed to unremitting and increasingly graphic output from social and news media platforms. So it is important to discuss terrorism-related risk with children and young people as honestly and comprehensively as is feasible.

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While speaking to pupils and staff (and parents) in independent schools, I have found they invariably display a healthy curiosity about what terrorists do, why they do it and how well-prepared we are to stop them (and why sometimes we can’t).  Therefore, the development of a bespoke PSHE-led ‘framework for discussing terrorist attacks’ for use in schools is to be welcomed. But does it miss something fundamental? ‘Deconstructing events’ and knowing how we ‘feel’ about terrorism (both aspects stressed in the PSHE objectives) take us only so far. What are we doing to equip students to evaluate their own exposure and to take sensible risk management decisions if the unthinkable becomes a reality?

Particularly since the London bombings of July 2005, the pupil-led Q&A sessions I have run have focused increasingly on the practical elements of what to do ‘if’.  The questions asked by pupils have demonstrated a level of maturity well beyond that addressed within the PSHE framework mentioned above. For example, in 2015 the government published its ‘Run Hide Tell’ advice. This anglicised (and watered-down) version of the harder-hitting US message ‘Run Hide Fighthas raised numerous questions. Specifically, what to do when:

At this point it is informative to contrast lessons drawn from the Bataclan incident in Paris (November 2015) and the Thalys train incident (August 2015). In the former, many of those who were unable to run, but hid insidethe venue, were found and became casualties. During the latter (involving a moving train), the lack of options meant some passengers took positive actions to make the best of a bad situation, confronting and overcoming the attacker. Many will (and do) argue this is not ideal: but what was the alternative?

The importance of context

Addressing difficult questions in context is a mainly missed opportunity within the PSHE framework. In late 2015, I spoke to a sixth-form group in the wake of the Bataclan attack in Paris. Much time was spent discussing the context, the benefits of running away, of not standing with a ‘selfie’-taking or otherwise paralysed crowd, and having a plan for staying in contact (or re-establishing contact) with friends and family during periods of significant disruption. This led to associated questions about:

It also inspired a sensible debate about what to do if a terrorist with a gun shouted at you to ‘stop!’. Again, evidence from the Bataclan is instructive: there, as elsewhere, compliance by victims served mainly to improve the attackers’ accuracy of aim. Dealing with hypotheticals, but always in a given context, allowed difficult questions (of which there were many, because personal perceptions of risk are not homogeneous) to be addressed as part of a coherent narrative.

Some six months later I received an email from two of the girls who had attended the session. They had been in Nice on 15 July 2016 as the devastating vehicle-as-a-weapon attack began. They had been walking along the boulevard where 86 people were to be murdered: they heard the screams; they saw the oncoming truck. Having already thought about their options, and given some consideration to their attitude to risk-taking (and survival), they ran: without hesitation, without doubt and in the clear knowledge of what actions they needed to take next. They kept running and survived.

As sensible and resourceful young women, departing the scene would undoubtedly have been a high priority ‒ whatever they had been told. However, in extreme circumstances, people can be unsure about how to react. They may simply follow the crowd or just submit to debilitating decision inertia (that is, the failure to recognise existing experience has just been overtaken by events). Those able to process information rapidly and act accordingly will therefore possess a distinct advantage when vital decisions need to be made.

So, as a parent, how confident are you that your own child, whether in the care of their school or out on their own, would know:

Dealing with such questions requires the application of context, consideration of relevant case studies and willingness to addresses difficult issues without obfuscation. Speaking openly about challenges and limitations promotes deeper understanding and enhances the possibility of reverting to ‘first principles’. It means that if the unexpected and ‘unthinkable’ does happen, hard-pressed cognitive processes have a valuable resource upon which to draw. Knowing how we ‘feel’ about terrorism is one thing: knowing what to do during the utter confusion of an evolving terrorist incident is something very different. The two are related but we do our children no favours by allowing them to become conflated.

A version of this article first appeared in a Girls’ Schools Association publication.

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