Threats to school-aged children are not new. From the 1940s through the 1980s, children in primary schools participated in bombing preparation drills, in case their school came under a bombing attack. After the mass shooting at Columbine by a pair of disaffected youth, the drills shifted from bombing to active shooter.
No longer did children sit in the hallway with their heads between their knees. Instead, teens and kids were taught how to lock the classroom door and shelter in place.
Unfortunately for too many children these days, well-meaning school administrators have taken it upon themselves to make an active shooter drill more “real,” sometimes by even using prop weapons. These efforts are misguided, and at worst, instill a sense of dread and anxiety in children who look for their school to provide a safe learning environment.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, I vividly remember the bomb drills (“duck-and-cover” drills as they were called) in my elementary and middle schools. Because America was in the depths of a cold war with the USSR, they were actually for the threat of a nuclear missile, not a conventional bomb as they had been in the 1940s and 1950s. As though putting our heads between our knees and remaining quiet for 2 minutes would somehow stop the radiation.
More than anything else, these drills were a placebo, meant to alleviate the anxiety of the children’s parents and school teachers. Children don’t worry about nuclear annihilation much. They were simply a welcomed distraction from the mind-numbing, endless daily routine of school, quickly forgotten by day’s end.
But school administrators and teachers didn’t forget. And these drills transformed into the active shooter drills that are commonplace in schools across America today. No longer are kids putting their heads down in order to avoid bomb debris, but rather keeping it down to avoid a bullet.
Experts have started speaking out about the unnecessary “realness” of some of these drills, and the unintended consequences of creating actual trauma in the children they are meant to help protect:
“Everywhere I travel, I hear from parents and educators about active shooter drills terrifying students, leaving them unable to concentrate in the classroom and unable to sleep at night,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association. “So traumatizing students as we work to keep students safe from gun violence is not the answer.”
On Feb. 12, 2020, the two largest teacher unions in the United States called for an end to unannounced active shooter drills and life-like simulations. And that’s for good reason — they are wholly unnecessary and do nothing to prepare students for an active shooter situation.
There is surprisingly little research on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of active shooter drills. One of the few studies we do have was conducted on 74 students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades in New York in 2007 (Zhe & Nickerson, 2007).
These researchers looked a group of students who received specific knowledge about the procedures of an intruder crisis drill through a brief training sessions. These sessions were based on a lesson plan based on best practices for school crisis drills. It incorporated cognitive behavioral techniques for training children in emergency skills.
The researchers found that students who underwent the specialized training did not have increased anxiety as compared to the control group who did not. That’s because the researchers used best practices prescribed by other researchers and experts in this area. This includes giving different explanations for the training exercise depending on the grade level, NOT using dramatic props or actors, and everyone was fully informed this was a drill — not a real crisis event.
However, too many school administrators ignore the research and intruder drill best practices. They use actors to pretend they’re an active shooter. Some have even used prop weapons. And sometimes administrators don’t tell their teachers or students that it is only a drill. These are examples of worst practices. If your school is doing any of these things, they need to stop now. Their efforts are not only anti-science, but likely causing unintended trauma in their students.
Worse is that many schools don’t really seem to care if the drills have any impact on their preparedness for an actual active shooter situation. Marizen et al. (2009) noted in their review of Los Angeles schools, “Drills were not used as opportunities to improve procedures. Sites neither conducted any self-assessments nor made changes to procedures on the basis of performance.” It’s as if the drill is security theater, rather than seeking to provide actual security to the students.
There’s no reason a child or teen should ever feel unsafe at school. Adhering to best practices and the scientific research can help school administrators and teachers implement active shooter drills that are both safe and effective.