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Are active shooter drills worth it?

Students at Robb Elementary followed lockdown drill protocol, but many trainings go too far.

Chief of Police Scott Robertson talks with fourth grade students as they huddle in a closet during a lockdown drill at the St. Bernard School in New Washington, Ohio, in January 2013.
Craig Ruttle/AP

When one Robb Elementary teacher heard gunfire explode down the hall, she shouted for her kids to get under the desks as she sprinted to lock the classroom door. “They’ve been practicing for this day for years,” the teacher told NBC. “They knew this wasn’t a drill. We knew we had to be quiet or else we were going to give ourselves away.”

Lockdown drills (or “active shooter drills”) have become standard fare in American public schools, used in more than 95 percent of schools and mandated in more than 40 states. But despite their ubiquity, there’s no federal guidance on exactly how these drills should run, creating significant variation — and controversy — across the country.

For-profit companies with big marketing budgets sell their own preparedness programs to schools, despite limited evidence for the effectiveness of these companies’ approach. Some students have reported feeling traumatized after the drills, though others say it gives them a relative sense of empowerment. In recent years, anecdotes have emerged of overzealous tactics, like shooting teachers with plastic pellets, simulating gunfire, and using fake blood.

While reporters continue to stitch together the specifics of what went down at Robb Elementary, it’s clear that the school went into lockdown — teachers locked classroom doors, turned out lights, and moved the class out of sight from the hallway and remained quiet.

In the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, all schools use the Standard Response Protocol for lockdowns, a set of clear instructions promoted by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, which parents launched in 2006 after their daughter was killed in a Colorado school shooting. The protocol instructs teachers to lock doors and ensure students stay out of sight and stay quiet.

A fourth grader who survived the shooting told the CBS affiliate KENS of San Antonio that when he heard the shooting, he urged his friend to hide under something. “I was hiding hard,” the child said. “And I was telling my friend to not talk because [the shooter] is going to hear us.”

These experiences suggest the lockdown drills really did help students and staff respond effectively. Evidence so far suggests children and educators in Uvalde followed their lockdown training well, and it was local police who failed to follow protocol. For now, most experts say if we’re stuck living in a society where school shootings are threats communities must deal with, then schools should plan for drills but be more conscious of how they’re executed, and take steps to mitigate needless harm.

The case for lockdown drills

More schools began practicing lockdown drills after the 1999 high school massacre in Columbine, Colorado, but the number ticked up quickly following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Even though youth homicides are far less likely to occur in schools than other locations, school leaders and politicians face immense pressure to proactively respond to these frightening incidents.

Research has suggested that lockdown drills are important tools, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, who studies school lockdown drills. One reason is that the more a school practices, the better students and staff get at remembering to execute all the steps.

Boardman High School principal Cynthia Fernback checks classroom doors to make sure they are locked during a lockdown drill in Boardman, Ohio, in February 2019.
Tony Dejak/AP

“This is particularly important as [emergency] drills ... are designed to build muscle memory, which allows a person to perform certain functions in chaotic situations, such as an active attacker, when their mind is still trying to process what is taking place,” she wrote in a 2020 paper. Other research has found disaster trainings help students develop skills, and the National Association of School Psychologists has also endorsed lockdown drills as a way to prepare for emergencies.

Schildkraut’s findings indicate that staff and students who participate in lockdown drills feel more prepared and more empowered for an emergency. The trade-off, she found, is that students also felt less safe in school — potentially as a result of having to think about the risk they might one day face.

Some critics have said it’s not necessary to subject young students to the drills when they could just listen to their teachers’ instructions in the event of an emergency. A common comparison is flying on an airplane; passengers are directed on where to turn for information if there is a crisis, but they are not required to practice the emergency protocols before their flight takes off.

Schildkraut said a difference is that teachers are often the first people to be killed in a school shooting. “You can’t remove the only people with the information and then expect anyone else to do it,” she told me. “Everyone has to have the tools to stay safe in the moment.”

Supporters of lockdown preparedness also point to the Parkland, Florida, shooting in 2018, where students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had received no active shooter training and the school had no established lockdown procedures.

This lack of training, experts say, was one reason teachers and students on the third floor of Marjory Stoneman Douglas had evacuated their classrooms when they heard a fire alarm. (The alarm had been set off by discharge coming from the shooter’s gun.) When the shooter reached the third floor, he murdered five students in the hallway and one teacher who was holding their classroom door open.

But little federal guidance exists on best practices for lockdown drills, despite repeated calls for such assistance. In 2013, federal agencies endorsed a controversial practice known as “Run, Hide, Fight,” encouraging school staff unable to hide or run in an active shooter incident to try to “incapacitate” the perpetrator with “aggressive force” or nearby items like fire extinguishers. The federal training did not clarify how and if educators should practice such tactics.

In the final report of the Federal Commission on School Safety established after Parkland, the authors recommended federal agencies develop guidelines for active shooter trainings, but to date those have not materialized. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security did not return request for comment; a spokesperson for the Department of Education provided links to guidance on active shooter and emergency events, but not to drills specifically.

A suite of companies and consultants have stepped into the breach, touting so-called “options-based” approaches they claim are superior to traditional drills. These include training staff in more tactics, like barricading doors or even actively confronting an armed shooter. The most recognized player in this space is ALICE, the largest for-profit provider of active shooting training in the US. Armed with big marketing budgets, the company can travel across the country to promote its model, even with limited research available to support it.

“There’s no requirement on what model to use, and right now it’s everyone trying to figure it out,” Schildkraut said.

How lockdown drills can cause harm

Given the steady stream of anecdotal news stories about active shooter drills inspiring child fear and even employee injury lawsuits, advocates have urged more attention on whether lockdown drills provoke trauma or are even necessary. Psychologists say establishing drill standards is especially important for children, whose brains and coping strategies are still developing. Others urge more focus on preventive safety strategies, like improving mental health supports and developing anonymous tip lines for students.

Scant high-quality research exists on the mental health risks of lockdown drills, though in 2021, Georgia Tech researchers, in partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety, published a study analyzing social media posts before and after the drills in 114 schools across 33 states.

The researchers found the drills associated with increases in depression, stress, anxiety, and physiological health problems for students, teachers, and parents, and suggested leaders rethink schools’ reliance on them. “We provide the first empirical evidence that school shooter drills — in their current, unregulated state — negatively impact the psychological well-being of entire school communities,” the authors wrote.

Other experts say the drills may even be counterproductive, given that most school shooters tend to be current or former students of those schools. The drills might spark “socially contagious” behavior, some critics warn, or deter school leaders from making other proactive safety investments.

ALICE’s methods, which include alarming simulations, have drawn particular scrutiny. But in December 2021, when a shooter murdered four students at Oxford High School in Michigan, leaders noted they had prepared for such an attack using an ALICE drill two months prior. The CEO of ALICE claimed Oxford would have seen dozens more deaths without the training.

One study published in 2020, led by a criminal justice professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, found roughly one in 10 students reported experiencing a negative psychological outcome following an ALICE training, but over 85 percent of students said they either had no change in feeling or felt more prepared, confident, or safe. The professor who led that research — Cheryl Lero Jonson — published a study in 2018 arguing that “options-based” approaches like ALICE were “more effective civilian response[s]” to active shooter incidents than traditional school lockdown drills. Critics note Lero Jonson is a certified ALICE instructor and say her findings were not sufficiently independent.

Schildkraut, who primarily studies the Standard Response Protocol method, told me she would not feel comfortable saying if one model is better or worse, but that she does feel advocates of ALICE-like approaches mislead the public when they suggest traditional lockdown drills don’t involve choices.

“When we train students, we don’t say this is your only option. If you’re in an open area or by an exit door, your best option is to get out of the building,” she said. “The reason why there’s a heavier focus on the lockdown as an option [and the ‘L’ in ALICE stands for lockdown] is because kids remember things in a very linear fashion, and the best thing a student can do is shut the door and get out of the way.”

How to mitigate drill harm

To reduce the risk of trauma, a growing number of experts and advocates have stepped up to issue recommendations for lockdown drills.

In August 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced its opposition to high-intensity active shooter drills, issuing recommendations including to eliminate deception in the exercises, and to incorporate student input in their design. The AAP recommended making accommodations for students who may have had prior traumatic experiences or are otherwise at higher risk for negative reaction.

A month later, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Everytown for Gun Safety issued their own recommendations for school safety drills, including removing students from them altogether. If students do have to participate, the teachers unions and Everytown suggest giving parents notice, eliminating simulations that mimic an actual shooting, and using age-appropriate language developed in partnership with school-based mental health staff.

In May 2021, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers, and Safe and Sound Schools released their own new guidance on school lockdown drills, recommending, among other things, getting parental permission and training staff to recognize trauma signs.

And this year, partly motivated by the new Georgia Tech research, lawmakers in Washington state passed a bill prohibiting school lockdown drills from involving lifelike simulations or reenactments that are not “trauma-informed and age and developmentally appropriate.” The law takes effect in June.

Researchers say more high-quality studies are needed to understand the long-term impacts of lockdown drills and to develop more standardized approaches that could minimize risk. More leadership from the federal government would help.