Student Well-Being

From Air Raids to Fake Gunfire, Safety Drills Evolve

By Nirvi Shah — January 31, 2013 2 min read
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In the early days of the Cold War, some teachers were suddenly tasked with testing their students’ ability to survive a bomb.

Students huddled under their desks, clutching their ears as sirens blared. Some schools even distributed dog tags, according to one recollection, in case bodies needed to be identified after an attack.

While air raid drills disappeared—even before the Soviet Union—the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last month, school safety drills have been evolving—and there are questions about the effects of the newer, more realistic exercises involving gunfire and students boasting fake wounds.

This week, a school safety drill at Cary-Grove High School in Illinois included shooting blanks in the hallway, so students could hear the pop of gunfire as part of the exercise.

“If we can save just an additional kid because he hears (a gunshot), or she hears it, and they get into a classroom quicker, that’s what we want,” Jeff Puma, the director of communications for Community High School District 155 outside Chicago told the Daily Herald about Wednesday’s drill.

But a few months before the Newtown shootings, students with fake, bloody wounds collapsed as a “gunman” took aim at them at Howe Hall Arts-Infused Magnet School in Goose Creek, S.C. An assistant principal dialed 911 and another staff member told students and staff the school was on lockdown via the public address system.

Students and teachers hunkered silently in darkened classrooms away from closed blinds and locked doors, the Associated Press reports, while police officers with rifles worked their way through hallways decorated with student art.

“Unfortunately, it’s a sign of the times,” Principal Christopher Swetckie told the AP. Students are told it’s like hide-and-seek, he said, and a placard system is used to notify law enforcement if there is an injured person in the room.

“I hate that in this day and age that you have to prepare for these types of events,” he said.

While many students are pros at tornado and fire drills by the time they turn 6, other types of safety drills are used differently across the country. The sound of gunfire ringing out as part of a test alarms some parents, although one 2007 study finds that school safety drills do prepare students for emergencies without long-term effects on students’ stress or making them feel unsafe.

But one of the co-authors of that study told AP she isn’t sure extreme realism would yield the same results.

“I don’t think that’s necessary, and I would think it could raise people’s anxiety unnecessarily,” said Amanda Nickerson, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University at Buffalo.

In the Illinois school district using a starter pistol this week, the district spokesman said past drills exclusively for teachers have included simulated gunfire.

But the massacre at Sandy Hook drove the decision to expose students to the same sounds.

“If there had been no Newtown,” Puma said, “I don’t know if we would have included simulated gunfire.”

PHOTO: Members of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Hudson Falls Police Department walk through a corridor inside the Hudson Falls Primary School in Hudson Falls, N.Y., earlier this week during an emergency lockdown drill. Omar Ricardo Aquije/The Post-Star/AP

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