The mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has added new fuel to long-running conversations about drills schools use to prepare for shootings: how to help students develop routines they can rely on in case of crisis without traumatizing them.
The May 24 attack—in which an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers—sparked a new round of debates over school safety, and how regularly students should prepare for the devastating but statistically unlikely event of a mass shooting at their school.
On one side: advocates for “hardening schools” have pushed for exercises that teach students how to jump out of classroom windows and even fight back by throwing objects like erasers and books at an attacker. In recent years, some school districts have even added elements to their drills intended to make them seem more like a real attack: the sound of real gunfire, officers firing blanks through school hallways, and the use of prop or toy firearms.
On the other end of the spectrum, some advocates for stricter gun laws have long questioned the value of student drills, saying they put the burden of responding to gun violence on the backs of children whose school experiences have been changed by the routines.
“I would love to live in a world where we did not need these [drills], but that’s not the world we live in,” said said Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego who studies mass shootings and school drills. “So how can we do them in a way that is both trauma-informed, and also delivering the skills that students need to have in these moments?”
States limit, clarify purpose of school shooter drills
After years of encouraging schools to better prepare for possible shootings, some states—most recently Washington and New Jersey—have moved to more clearly define what sorts of student drills are appropriate and effective.
State lawmakers have sought to limit realistic simulations, which draw criticism from safety experts and child well-being researchers.
“You can prepare your kids for a house fire by telling them where to meet and how to climb out of their windows,” Washington state Rep. Amy Walen, a Democrat, said in a January committee meeting. “But you don’t have to burn the house down to show them how to escape a house fire safely.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, signed a Walen-sponsored bill into law on March 17, making his state the most recent to take action on the issue. The measure prohibits school drills from including “live simulations of or reenactments of active shooter scenarios that are not trauma-informed and age and developmentally appropriate.”
Walen, originally proposed fully prohibiting drills “based on active shooter scenarios.” Instead, she said, schools should limit themselves to rehearsing simple lockdown procedures that could be used in a variety of emergency situations.
After some school administrators pushed back, saying that restriction was too broad, she amended her bill to focus on her most acute concerns. Parents and students, including her own nephew, had told her drills that too closely mimicked a real-life attack were unnecessarily distressing, Walen said.
Other states have passed similar measures in recent years.
Bills passed in Virginia since 2017 require schools to notify parents in advance of drills and to exempt kindergarten and prekindergarten students from participating for the first 60 days of a new school year. Alabama passed a law in 2019 that changes a state requirement for “code red drills” designed to respond to active shooters to more general “lockdown drills.”
A new law in New Jersey, signed in January, requires school drills to be age-appropriate, and it prohibits role-playing “the use of fake blood, real or prop firearms, or the simulations of gunshots, explosions, or other sounds or visuals that may induce panic or a traumatic response from a student or school district employee.”
Lockdown drills vs. active shooter drills
School shootings, especially rampage-style attacks as in Uvalde, are statistically rare. But the emotionally impactful nature of such events often drives school safety debates and legislative responses.
As parents and policymakers around the country have called for action following high-profile school shootings in places like Uvalde, Newtown, Conn., and Santa Fe, Texas, the use of school drills—and state laws that mandate them—has grown.
Ninety-six percent of public schools reported having written procedures for active shooter drills in the 2019-20 school year, according to the most recent federal data. That was up from 79 percent in 2003-04. Ninety-eight percent of schools reported procedures for lockdown drills, a term some educational administrators use synonymously with active shooter drills.
The broad variation in how educators and policymakers use those terms matches a similar variation in what schools deem appropriate, said Schildkraut, the professor who studies drills. Sometimes, she’s even found vastly different practices in different schools in the same district.
The drills most supported by research are simple lockdown procedures during which students lock classroom doors, shut off lights, stand out of view from any windows, and stay silent, Schildkraut said.
Such procedures could be used in the case of a gunman on campus, but they could also be relied upon if a wild animal enters the building or as a response to any range of unforeseen possibilities, she said.
Administrators err when they think they must familiarize students with the sound of real gun fire or use scare tactics to get them to take drills seriously, Schildkraut said. Those practices don’t take into account students’ personal histories with trauma or exposure to gun violence in their communities.
“The goals of a drill are to build muscle memory so that if there is ever an emergency—whatever the situation is—if there is any kind of impairment from stress or whatever, your body will take over and do what it’s supposed to do,” Schildkraut said. “The theatrics and everything else is simply not needed to achieve that muscle memory.”
In 2020, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers issued jointguidance on various types of drills. That guidance stressed the importance of lockdown procedures and stressed that simulations should be used to train adults, like law enforcement officers, not students.
Run, hide, fight?
Washington state will release guidance for districts that more clearly defines what is “age-appropriate” before its new law goes into effect this month, said Lee Collyer, director of school health and student safety for the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
That guidance won’t ban one practice the bill’s supporters criticized: teaching students how to barricade a classroom door with desks and other furniture. Such a practice will be allowed as long as it is not done as part of a shooting simulation, Collyer said.
Barricading classrooms is one step in multi-option response drills, also known as “run, hide, fight” or ALICE, an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate training that was developed by a former law enforcement officer.
Those protocols teach students practices like how to escape out of classroom windows, how to secure classrooms, and even how to fight back by throwing objects like books and staplers at intruders.
School safety experts say such practices aren’t backed by evidence and may increase the chances a student is harmed—physically or emotionally—during training. There is also wide variability in how private instructors teach some practices, which is why some schools that participate have drawn national headlines for asking students to stockpile canned goods or buckets of river rocks to hurl at would-be attackers.
Michael Olsen, superintendent of the Kettle Falls School District in rural Washington, spoke against the original version of Walen’s bill. Rural schools like his need to give students options to respond in crisis situations, including shootings, because longer travel distances mean law enforcement officers are often slower to respond, he told lawmakers.
“We could be looking at 10 to 15 minutes before we have any law enforcement on site,” Kettle told Education Week.
Olsen said he’s satisfied with the final text of the new law, under which students at Kettle Falls can still practice “dangerous intruder” procedures. Younger students largely practice lockdown protocols and discuss other options, like evacuation, with teachers. Older students may practice stacking furniture or discuss what they could use as a projectile to distract an attacker, Olsen said.
“These kind of drills, done incorrectly, could be horribly traumatizing to students and staff,” he said. “The language that was actually passed is easy to support.”
Schildkraut said some multi-option response practices aren’t supported by evidence, and some are instinctive to students, even without practice. She supports practicing procedures for locking down, evacuating, and sheltering in place as discrete practices. But practices need to help students avoid confusion and focus on waiting for instructions from an adult, she said.
Schildkraut has researched effective drill practices at the Syracuse City School District in New York, where she has conducted over 300 lockdown practices in four years.
Lockdown drills can be done very calmly and routinely in a way that doesn’t affect students emotionally, she said.
With consistent practices, she has found students and educators can closely adhere to best practices. Her drills involve quietly closing doors, shutting off lights, standing quietly out of view, and responding to law enforcement, which she simulates with a gentle knock on the door.
Surveying 6th- through 12-grade students before and after participation, Schildkraut found that more respondents felt prepared after a drill, but they also reported a lower sense of safety at school.
In a 2022 study that summarized her findings, Schildkraut attributed that response to “protection motivation theory,” which suggests that “in order for people to engage in protective behavior, they have to perceive that there is some kind of threat.”
In other words, learning about why drills are necessary made students more aware of potential dangers, she said. But that motivation can come through a careful discussion, Schildkraut insisted, and students don’t need dramatic theatrics to take preparation seriously.
While state laws have focused the most on addressing simulations, some educators, and some state lawmakers, have said all student drills can lead to possible trauma.
“School shootings are rare, and we should probably not prepare our children to be anxious and afraid at schools,” Lake Washington, Wash., school psychologist Kathryn Salveson said as she testified in support of the Washington bill last year.
She particularly condemned “sensorial experiences,” like actors and the sounds of screaming, which are not backed by research.
She cited aDecember 2021 study by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who analyzed 54 million social media posts before and after various kinds of shooting drills at 114 schools in 33 states.
The researchers trained machine-learning software to detect common language associated with depression and anxiety, filtering the social media posts for indicators of mental health concerns.
The study—which received funding from Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that has advocated for tougher gun laws and has criticized school safety drills—found about 40 percent increases in the proportion of posts that suggested stress, anxiety, and depression after students participated in drills.
Schildkraut urged some caution in analyzing the results. Students may be less motivated to share online after an unremarkable, routine drill than after a drill that was poorly conducted or traumatizing, she said.
Still, it’s important that lawmakers and educators are thoughtful about how they prepare students, she said.
Schildkraut, who has studied shootings for 15 years, recently observed a simulation drill with law enforcement. She had prepared herself for the presence of armed officers and the appearance of fake blood—a mix of food coloring and Dial hand soap— but she did not anticipate her response to the sounds of actors screaming.
The researcher, who grew up in Parkland, Fla., which was the site of a mass school shooting in 2018, had to leave the building to regroup.
“All I could think of was, ‘Oh my God. This is what was going on in that school,’” she said.