School Climate & Safety

States Pressing Schools to Add ‘Intruder’ Drills

May 21, 2013 8 min read
Sheriff's deputy Chad Rogers, center, advances with fellow officers during a full-scale "active shooter" exercise this spring at Elmira High School in Elmira, Ore. An increasing number of states are enacting or considering laws to require schools to practice safety drills that involve multiple agencies and volunteer students and school staff.
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Hundreds of U.S. schools will supplement fire drills and tornado training next fall with simulations of school shootings.

In response to the December shootings by an intruder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., several states have enacted or are considering laws that require more and new types of school safety drills, more reporting to state agencies about safety planning, and new audits of school security.

Powerful tornadoes this week in Oklahoma, however, may also prompt changes in the ways schools attempt to keep students safe in cases of natural disasters. At least seven students were killed at an elementary school destroyed by one twister that struck Moore, Okla.

An Education Week analysis of school safety measures proposed since the Newtown shootings showed that, while proposals that involve arming teachers or adding armed police at schools are getting national attention, they are gaining ground in only a few states. Meanwhile, proposed mandates for emergency-preparedness drills and planning are getting traction quickly in many statehouses this legislative season, and dozens of similar bills have yet to be considered. (Only about half the legislatures have finished their sessions.)

Some examples of new laws adopted so far:

• In April, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, signed a measure that requires additional “intruder” drills in schools and speeds up the deadline for when schools must conduct their first fire drills each school year.

• Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, also a Republican, approved a bill in March to add two lockdown drills to the slate of safety exercises schools already conduct.

• Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, approved legislation in April that requires four annual lockdown drills instead of one in Washington state schools, plus an additional drill of schools’ choice.

Proposals whose fates were undecided as of last week include a Missouri bill that would require all school personnel to participate in simulated active-shooter and intruder-response drills conducted by law enforcement.

A Louisiana bill still being considered would require principals to review their crisis-management plans and response every year, and consider the thoughts of students, parents, teachers, other school employees, community leaders, and public safety officials.

An Illinois bill that Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has indicated he would support would require shooting drills at all schools.

Whether the additional practice and paperwork will actually improve schools’ defenses against shooters and intruders is hard to say, said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, an advocacy and advisory group in Westlake Village, Calif.

“How do you plan for things that nobody has ever thought of before?” said Mr. Stephens, noting that some recent school shootings were unprecedented in scope and approach. “It’s hard to think of everything.”

In Newtown, the gunman shot his way into the school, then killed 20 1st graders and six staff members.

Mr. Stephens said that as new safety measures are adopted, he wonders how schools will have the expertise to carry them out, or the resources to acquire that capacity.

Footing the Bill

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, signed a bill into law in March that requires annual active-shooter drills at schools starting next fall. The bill assumes there will be money given to the University of Arkansas’ Criminal Justice Institute, in Little Rock, to train schools in what those drills should entail. The money hasn’t been put in the budget yet, but the requirement remains.

State Sen. Missy Irvin, a Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said she hasn’t given up on the money coming through, but even without it, she wants schools to figure out the drills on their own.

“There’s no reason in the world we should not be practicing these types of drills,” Sen. Irvin said. “Unfortunately, that’s the reality of our world that we live in today.”

She said she proposed the law because her own children, ages 12, 14, 16, and 18, told her after the Newtown shootings that they wouldn’t know what to do in such a situation.

“A long time ago, we legislated that you have fire drills and tornado drills,” Sen. Irvin said, so it’s natural that school safety preparation now include practice for a more recent type of potential crisis, too.

But Mr. Stephens added a note of caution to schools’ rush to drill.

“When you get into one specific type of crisis, it could become another,” he said. A shooting might prompt teachers to lock their classroom doors and hunker down with students, but everyone in those classrooms could become easy targets if a gunman moved from classroom to classroom, he said.

“It’s difficult to have a one-size-fits-all” drill, Mr. Stephens said.

We spend too much time trying to identify every possible crisis that occurs. No two crises are alike."

Even when there is practice, it may become irrelevant, said Richard Abernathy, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.

Mr. Abernathy said that when he was the principal at Lavaca High School in the western part of the state, a radio station incorrectly told listeners the school had been hit by a tornado. A windstorm had blown paneling off the school, and the scene outside was nasty, but students continued classes uninterrupted.

Parents flocked to the school, however, clamoring to take their children home.

“It would have taken the National Guard ... to have an orderly process to check out” students, Mr. Abernathy said. “Parents beat any emergency vehicle to the school.”

The school’s emergency planning and drills became moot.

“You just threw it all out the door,” Mr. Abernathy said.

Making Time

Virginia already required more than a dozen safety drills throughout the school year before the Newtown killings occurred, said Steven R. Staples, the executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, in Richmond. The state created a task force to evaluate school safety after the attack.

“I said to the task force, many people woke up the day after Sandy Hook worrying about school safety. Superintendents worry about school safety every day,” Mr. Staples said.

While he said his organization is open to considering nearly any proposal to boost students’ safety, state leaders must consider that the new requirements come at a cost, which may not be just financial.

“You just can’t keep adding one more item to the hopper without one more thing getting displaced,” he said. His group would have preferred replacing two fire drills with the new intruder drills.

Virginia schools must conduct four fire drills in the first month of school and one every month for the rest of the year.

One drill might take 45 minutes. And teachers have to spend additional time settling students back into the groove of class, Mr. Staples said. If the drill is done when students aren’t present, teachers lose preparation time. Schools also must complete written safety plans and audits, he said.

“At some point, it may become too much,” he said. “We haven’t added time to our day, days to our year.”

In Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, signed bills into law in April that will require schools to practice two drills each for intruders, fires, and tornadoes and two drills of schools’ choosing, in addition to two lockdown drills already required. This week, Gov. Fallin said the state will be discussing the addition of more safe rooms and shelters at schools, noting that many newer schools do have safe rooms—which generally have especially thick walls and steel doors.

Another new Oklahoma law requires school safety plans to be shared with local emergency-response agencies by Nov. 1 each year.

If schools don’t conduct the right number of drills, it can affect accreditation, said Tricia Pemberton, a spokeswoman for the state department of education.

Joseph Siano, the president of the Oklahoma Association of School Administrators, said it’s worth interrupting classes for a lifesaving drill.

“I don’t think there’s a better reason than to practice for that one incident that you hope never happens,” said Mr. Siano, the superintendent of the 15,500-student Norman district.

But a recent newspaper investigation in Michigan found schools don’t always follow strong safety laws just because states have them.

The discovery could lead to even more legislation in the state.

Spotty Compliance

The MLive newspaper group checked in on how 400 schools—including some run by charter companies and private organizations—in 100 Michigan districts were complying with state laws about emergency drills. It found that an average of two out of three districts and privately run schools had one or more shortcomings, such as skipped practice sessions, drills done less frequently than state law requires or very close to the end of the school year, or incomplete or missing records.

One school did eight required drills in one day.

This month, a state lawmaker said in response to the report he may propose that records of school safety efforts be posted online to hold schools accountable.

Rick J. Kaufman, the executive director of community relations and emergency management for the 10,000-student Bloomington school district in Minnesota, said legislators’ best intentions of improving school safety may be misguided.

Before working in Bloomington, he was the spokesman for the Jefferson County, Colo., school district, where two students killed classmates and themselves in 1999 at Columbine High School.

“We spend too much time trying to identify every possible crisis that occurs. No two crises are alike,” Mr. Kaufman said.

He said staff members may get little or no information, or incomplete information, from school administrators in the event of a real crisis. He echoed Mr. Stephens, of the National School Safety Center, on the need to train teachers and other staff members in getting students to comply with their commands in any situation

“It’s more important that we drill and train staff what to do with any incident,” he said. “What are the one, two, three, maybe four steps you’re going to need to do? You have to be adaptable.”

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as States Stepping Up Mandates for School Safety Drills


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