Why schools should drop unannounced active-shooter drills

Active shooter drills can have short- and long-term consequences, mental health experts warn
By: | February 21, 2020
Active-shooter drills that simulate gun violence should be prohibited because they haven't proven to save lives, but they can traumatize students, says a new report.Active-shooter drills that simulate gun violence should be prohibited because they haven't proven to save lives, but they can traumatize students, says a new report. (gettyimages.com: eyecrave)

School safety efforts should not rely on unannounced and potentially traumatic active-shooter drills that simulate gun violence, says a new report.

School leaders should prohibit both these drills and other safety exercises that simulate gun violence because there is scant evidence that they are effective at preventing deaths in school shootings, says the report produced by the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association.

“It’s now clear that unannounced active shooter drills are scaring America’s students without making them any safer,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown, said in a statement. “We need to listen to the experts and focus on addressing gun violence before it begins, rather than subjecting our kids to counterproductive drills.”

More from DA: How not to cross the line of traumatization in emergency prep

A growing number of mental health professionals are warning that unannounced active shooter drills can have short- and long-term consequences on school performance and physical and mental health, the report says.

“What these drills can really do is potentially trigger either past trauma or trigger such a significant physiological reaction that it actually ends up scaring the individuals instead of better preparing them to respond in these kinds of situations,” Melissa Reeves, former president of the National Association of School Psychologists, said in the report.

For schools that do conduct drills, Everytown, AFT, and NEA offer six recommendations:

  1. Drills should not mimic an actual incident.
  2. Parents should receive advance notice of drills.
  3. Drills should be announced to students and educators prior to the start.
  4. Educators should work with mental health professionals to create age-appropriate drill content.
  5. Drills should be paired with trauma-informed approaches to address students’ well-being.
  6. Educators should track data about the efficacy and effects of drills.

More from DA: Why there’s no clear way to stop gun violence

The report comes at a time when a growing number of district leaders are coming to accept that active shooter drills are a necessary component of school safety despite the potential for traumatic reactions, District Administration® reported last year.

These administrators are working to manage that stress, considering most states require lockdown drills.

In Michigan, Glen Lake Community Schools’ first active shooter drill involved only staff members practicing the ALICE strategy, which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.

During the drill, a staff member wielded a plastic weapon to play the part of the gunman. The teachers’ initial instinct was to flee, and they did. In a different scenario, staff members attacked and brought down the pretend assailant.

When gathering reactions afterward, “teachers felt very empowered in knowing they didn’t have to follow a set protocol,” Marcus Mead, Glen Lake’s director of administrative and instructional technology, told DA.

Other tips for active shooter drills and school safety

The National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers have offered guidance on such drills. Their report, “Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills,” recommends procedures for safe and effective drills, DA reported last year.

Elsewhere, districts are working harder to identify threats ahead of time, DA reported.

School leaders should establish procedures for identifying students who express intent to harm themselves or act out violently against others, Cathy Pane, crisis response team lead for the National Association of School Psychologists, told DA.

More from DA: Why emotional responses to security often fail