'I Felt More Traumatized Than Trained': Active-Shooter Drills Take Toll on Teachers

Gregg Frankhouser, an FBI special agent, left, shows a reporter how a modified pistol is calibrated for use in a simulation in Monroeville, Pa. Law enforcement often uses simulations to help schools prepare for potential active-shooter situations.
Gregg Frankhouser, an FBI special agent, left, shows a reporter how a modified pistol is calibrated for use in a simulation in Monroeville, Pa. Law enforcement often uses simulations to help schools prepare for potential active-shooter situations.
—Keith Srakocic/AP

Some left 'traumatized' by training tactics

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As schools ramp up active-shooter drills, some training tactics—especially those meant to simulate real-life scenarios—are doing more harm than good, educators and safety experts say.

Stories have sprung up around the country of law enforcement officers firing blanks in hallways to demonstrate the sound of gunfire, pelting teachers with projectiles, and showing video footage from actual shootings as part of their staff training exercises. In a recent drill in Indiana, teachers were shot execution-style with plastic pellets, leaving some with welts and bruises.

These experiences, educators say, can be physically and emotionally painful and don’t necessarily prepare anyone for an actual school shooting, which happens rarely.

“I felt more traumatized than trained,” said Elizabeth Yanelli, a teacher in Cranberry Township, Penn., who went through an active-shooter drill a few years ago in which teachers were shot with airsoft guns so they could practice stopping a shooter in the cafeteria. “We had colleagues shooting colleagues, we had people getting hit with [plastic] pellets. … People were screaming, trying to run. People were tripping over each other. It was just horrendous.”

School security consultants and psychologists say wide variability in active-shooter training, overzealous methods, and techniques that encourage fighting back can lead to injuries—both physical and psychological—for educators, and increased liability for schools and law enforcement. Those tactics, some meant to give participants a “scared straight” experience, aren’t necessary, they say.

“We don’t light fires in the hallway to practice fire drills, and we seem to teach that protocol pretty well,” said Melissa Reeves, the past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. “We can prepare for an active-shooter situation without the need for these super intense and potentially traumatizing drills.”

At the training in Indiana in January, in which teachers were told to kneel down and face a classroom wall before being shot multiple times with plastic pellets, terrified teachers were screaming, a representative from the Indiana State Teachers Association testified to state lawmakers last week. The story, which spread rapidly online, put educators’ concerns about the nature of school safety training under a massive spotlight.

"We just think that as these trainings are developed and rolled out, that we use our common sense and not do anything in which we would be firing projectiles at any student or staff members," Keith Gambill, the union’s vice president, told Education Week.

The union supports a bill that would require schools to conduct at least one active-shooter drill a year, but it wants lawmakers to add language prohibiting the use of projectiles directed at students and educators.

Such a measure would be unusual. While some states have set minimum standards for what must be included in active-shooter training, it’s rare for states or districts to set limits or to ban certain tactics.

Lockdowns vs. Multi-Option Drills

States and districts often adopt new safety mandates after high-profile shootings stoke public fear about schools’ safety. After two mass shootings at high schools in 2018—in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas—many policymakers set requirements for more drills and staff training, often with little definition of what that training should entail.

In 2017, 92 percent of schools had a written plan for responding to a shooter, according to the most recent federal data, and 95 percent of schools reported conducting student lockdown drills.

Lockdown drills, in which students are taught to sit quietly in a locked classroom, out of view of the door, are considered a best practice by school police organizations and many school-safety experts, who point to their success at limiting shooters’ access to students in previous school shootings. Lockdowns are also useful in a variety of situations that extend well beyond active shooters, including as a precautionary measure when there is a safety concern outside of a school, they say.

But some policymakers—fearing that lockdowns turn students into vulnerable “sitting ducks”—have turned to multi-option drills, which train participants in a variety of possible responses, including climbing out of school windows, barricading doors with desks, and even fighting back by hurling objects like books and staplers at armed intruders.

Some have cited a 2013 federal report, created by the U.S. Department of Education in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 1st graders and six adults dead. That report called on school staff to "consider trying to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter by using aggressive force and items in their environment, such as fire extinguishers and chairs." It didn't advocate involving students.

The school that drew attention in Indiana used a version of multi-option response training called ALICE, an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate, which has sparked concerns from school safety experts like outspoken critic Kenneth Trump, who says such methods are unproven and could actually be dangerous if used incorrectly.

“A school shooting is a high-impact but low-probability occurrence,” he said. “We have to keep that balance. We have to keep common sense, and we have to keep reasonableness into not crossing that line and doing harm in your training.”

ALICE, used by thousands of schools around the country, varies widely from place to place. It relies on a “train the trainer” model, in which the ALICE Training Institute certifies instructors who then carry out the drills and programs on the local level, often mixing in their own techniques and ideas, Trump said.

For schools, those trainers are often local law enforcement, who are accustomed to tactical training in protective equipment, rather than working with educators in regular school hallways, Trump said.

Trump said he’s heard of trainers doing everything from throwing tennis balls at school staff to firing Nerf guns or even plastic pellets like those used in the Indiana drill.

Unproven ideas often pass from trainer to trainer, he said. One Alabama middle school asked students to bring canned goods to hurl at shooters, an idea that has been adopted by some other schools. And after the shooting in Parkland, a Pennsylvania school made headlines when it put a bucket of river rocks in every classroom for the same purpose.

ALICE Institute responded to questions about its methods with a statement that said “schools and local law enforcement work together and decide what is best for training in their community.” The statement linked to safety guidelines that call on instructors to warn participants that Nerf balls shot in simulations may sting and that participants should wear thick clothing. Those guidelines do not mention the use of plastic pellets.

“Our training for adults typically starts with participants voluntarily experiencing a traditional lockdown scenario,” the statement said. “Most of the time, traditional lockdown leaves participants scared and wanting options to do more.”

Yanelli, the Pennsylvania teacher, said the active-shooter drill she participated in was part of ALICE training. Some of her colleagues, she said, thought it was great that “we were doing everything we can to protect our students.”

But Yanelli said that while she thinks it’s important for teachers to go through active-shooter trainings, she doesn’t think it’s necessary to be taught to “take on” a gunman. Being shot with a plastic pellet was painful, she said, despite wearing long sleeves like her principal had advised. And seeing her colleagues bleeding and with welts after going through a simulation was upsetting.

“I think there has to be common sense with these trainings, and I think this went a little too far,” she said.

Police carrying out a variety of drills—including traditional lockdowns and multi-option response drills—have fired blanks in school hallways to introduce participants to the sound of gunfire. Last week, for example, an assistant principal at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland—the site of the February 2018 mass shooting that killed 17 people—sent a message to teachers to warn them that they may hear gunfire from the nearby campus of Westglades Middle School as sheriff’s deputies fired blanks as part of a drill. A district spokesperson said the training was planned in conjunction with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and that students were out of school for a teacher workday when it was carried out.

Lawsuits and Emotional Distress

Staff safety drills of any kind that are highly physical and meant to drum up participants’ emotions and adrenaline can lead to injuries and other fallout, Trump said. He’s heard of everything from sprained ankles to broken shoulders that could lead to potential lawsuits and worker’s compensation claims.

One Iowa insurance company paid out more than $250,000 in claims related to injuries from active-shooter trainings over less than two years, according to a report by school safety consultant Michael Dorn.

Several teachers who have been injured in active-shooter drills have filed legal complaints. In 2015, an Oregon elementary teacher sued school district officials for emotional distress due to an active-shooter drill. The teacher, Linda McLean, said a masked man pointed a gun in her face, pulled the trigger, and as smoke filled the room, told her she was dead. McLean, who was not aware that a drill was going on, was terrified and disoriented, she said in her complaint—and she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The year before, a 60-year-old teacher in Boardman, Ohio, filed a lawsuit against local law enforcement and school officials, claiming he injured his hip and shoulder during an active-shooter drill because a police officer unexpectedly tackled him.

And according to the Wall Street Journal, four Missouri teachers contacted a county prosecutor’s office in 2014 because they were uncomfortable with a planned drill in which an airsoft gun fired plastic pellets. No official complaints were lodged.

Trump, who is hired by districts to do safety consulting, said that he encourages schools to seek a letter of approval from their attorney and insurance company before completing multi-option response training.

Teachers should be fully informed of what’s involved in a training beforehand, and they should be given the option to opt out without fear of condemnation or stigma, he said.

Teachers may have past traumatic experiences, like exposure to violent crime or domestic violence, that may make them feel emotionally vulnerable during training, especially if it’s unpredictable. And they may be afraid to disagree with an exercise designed to keep students safe.

Reeves, the psychologist who is now an associate professor at Winthrop University, agrees that consent is important in safety training.

“When you have a drill that is this highly sensorial and is not planned carefully, [taking teachers’] trauma histories into effect, and when you also consider how scary this can be to individuals who are not used to having this training as part of their professional development, you absolutely run the risk of imposing trauma,” she said.

In Indiana, Gambill said the teachers were told not to tell their colleagues about what happened in order to maintain an element of surprise. That’s “completely irresponsible,” Reeves said, adding that some teachers might have a history of trauma that unexpected simulated gunfire could exacerbate.

Time to Process

Reeves, who has co-authored a NASP and National Association of School Resource Officers guide to best practices for active-shooter drills, said she doesn’t think there is a scenario in which it would be responsible to “fire upon adults with rubber bullets.”

Instead, she recommends that school districts design active-shooter trainings with a multidisciplinary team that includes administrators, school psychologists and counselors, school resource officers, and legal staff.

And teachers should be given the opportunity to debrief afterwards and have access to mental health professionals if necessary, she said.

When Lisa Gilbert went through an active-shooter drill at her school in Missouri last year, teachers didn’t have a chance to process their emotions or experiences afterwards.

“That’s troubling because there was a lot of things that happened that day that we might have needed to process as professionals,” she said.

Teachers threw tennis balls at officers pretending to be shooters, and officers shot blanks in the hallways, Gilbert said. Teachers also watched an emotional video that showed the faces of students who had died in school shootings.

“We’re so desperate to feel like we can do something … in the face of something so terrifying and so tragic, and given that gun-reform legislation feels so out of reach, these trainings are maybe stepping in to that role a little bit,” said Gilbert, who is now a teacher educator.

Still, the drill left her feeling vulnerable. Teachers, she said, aren’t a match for “military-grade weapons.” And she felt like the experience—in which teachers complied with intense drills without being able to push back—was an example of disempowering teachers as professionals.

“At what point does this add to the loss of good teachers to our profession?” Gilbert said.

Related Blog

Indeed, educators say it can be difficult to return to work after these simulations. Yanelli, the Pennsylvania teacher, said she is no longer at the school where the ALICE training occurred.

“I just felt that [anywhere that] would allow something like that to happen to their employees is not a place where I would want to be,” she said.

Vol. 38, Issue 29, Pages 1, 13

Published in Print: March 24, 2019, as Safety Drills Take Toll on Teachers
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