School Climate & Safety

Active Shooter Drills in Schools: Harmful or Helpful? The Debate Rages On

By Arianna Prothero — February 11, 2020 5 min read
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Active shooter drills in schools—where students and educators are asked to practice how to respond to simulated shootings—can do more harm than good, according to the two national teachers’ unions and a prominent gun safety group.

The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Everytown for Gun Safety are recommending in a new report that schools stop using active shooter drills that are either unannounced or simulate gun violence such as the widely used ALICE drills.

The groups say there is say there is a careful balance between preparing students and traumatizing them.

While the likelihood of a shooting taking place at school is very small, almost all schools prepare for them with some kind of drill, which can range from elaborate simulations or traditional lockdown drills where students are instructed to hide in their classrooms. At least 40 states require schools to conduct some kind of drill to practice how to respond to an active shooter, the report says.

Related: Do Schools’ ‘Active-Shooter’ Drills Prepare or Frighten?

However, there is little evidence, according to the report, that active shooter drills are effective. This is in part because there is not enough data yet to study the effectiveness of such drills. There is also wide variation in the types of drills schools deploy, making measuring and comparing their effectiveness even trickier.

Additionally, school shooters have often been current or former students and are likely familiar with the drill protocols at the schools they target.

Traumatizing effects of life-like drills?

Meanwhile, the report says, some mental health professionals are raising concerns about the traumatizing effects that graphic and life-like drills can have on students.

This underscores the almost impossible challenge facing schools: How to prepare students and staff for one of the most devastating situations imaginable without breeding anxiety and trauma in the process.

Worries over mass shootings—spurred by the tragedies in Newtown, Conn., Parkland Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas among others—have driven many schools to hire companies and consultants to train staff and students on how to respond in unpredictable and violent situations. Among the leaders in the industry is the ALICE Training Institute.

“We believe drills are important because if faced with an active shooter situation, every second matters. According to a recent study conducted by The U.S. Secret Service, most school shootings last for two minutes or less, and nearly half of the events studied ended within one minute,” Jean-Paul Guilbault, CEO of the Alice Training Institute, said in a statement. “We drill so everyone has a plan when faced with danger, to give people a chance at survival.”

Drills are different in every school

There is considerable variation across the country in how schools conduct active shooter drills, says the report. Some require parental notification beforehand, others hire actors to pose as masked gunman, and children are not told it is a drill until it is over.

Drills that include elaborate simulations have been coming under scrutiny, especially when incidents grab headlines. Last year, teachers in Indiana were made to kneel down and were shot with plastic bullets, “execution style” during an active shooter drill. Teachers were screaming during the exercise and some were left with welts and bruises.

The NEA, AFT, and Everytown for Gun Safety do not recommend having students participate in active shooter simulations based on “growing concern among parents, students, educators, and medical professionals about the impact active shooter drills can have on student development.”

For schools that determine they want to continue using such drills and including students in them, the report recommends that:

  • Drills should not include simulations depicting an actual shooting;
  • Parents should be notified beforehand;
  • Students and educators should be told it’s a drill at the start;
  • Drills should be developmentally and age appropriate and created with input from school personnel, especially school-based mental health professionals;
  • Schools should implement trauma-informed approaches to improve student well-being; and
  • Schools should track data on the effectiveness of active shooter drills.

“As educators, ensuring our students’ safety and well-being is our number one priority,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the NEA, in a statement. “So traumatizing students as we work to keep students safe from gun violence is not the answer. 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.”

Finally, the report underscores that drills are only one part of the equation to protecting students from gun violence on campus. A comprehensive safety plan, the report says, includes more preventative measures such as implementing threat assessment programs, partnerships with local law enforcement, ensuring students have access to mental health professionals, and working with the community to try to make guns less accessible.

Schools should also make fostering a positive school climate a priority, the report says.

In a statement, ALICE Training Institute said it agrees with the majority of the recommendations in the report, including giving parents and students advance notice, tracking data, and customizing drills to students age and abilities.

“However, we believe that, when done appropriately, drills that simulate an event and allow students to practice their options, whether that be lockdown or evacuation, are the most effective,” Guilbault said. “These issues are ever evolving, and we applaud Everytown and its partners for issuing this important research.”

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Photo: Students at Forest Hills CLC place their head against the wall during a tornado drill, September 7, 2017, in Akron, Ohio. The students spent the morning participating in fire, tornado, and lockdown exercises. Angelo Merendino for Education Week.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.