Administrators increasingly accept that boosting school safety may rely on realistic active shooter drills that can upset staff and students.
Administrators must now grapple with managing that stress. They also must ensure that every student and staff member knows how to respond to a worst-case scenario.
Experts believe that active shooter lockdown drills and practicing emergency response procedures can reduce anxiety and safety risks. These activities build students’ and adults’ confidence in knowing what to do in an emergency.
But district leaders focused on school safety must understand that lockdown drills are not as familiar as fire drills. They may therefore cause psychological distress.
School safety planners must tailor simulations to participants’ developmental maturity, psychological history, prior traumatic experiences, and special needs, says Cathy Paine, crisis response team lead for the National Association of School Psychologists.
“The idea is to teach lockdown procedures like we would reading and math,” Paine says. “We want to make them thoughtful and routine. We can’t just throw students and staff into a drill and expect them to know what to do.”
‘Building a fort’ against an active shooter
Active shooter drills teach students and staff to hunker down in a room, and remain quiet and out of sight. Today’s options-based, school safety drills permit a range of actions to potentially save lives, Paine says.
Depending on the situation, evacuating, barricading a room or attacking the assailant are all appropriate responses. “When we’re training, it’s important that we emphasize the fact that the drill has three parts—particularly if you’re an adult or a high schooler—which are to run, hide or fight,” Paine says.
Read more: Best practices for K12 active shooter drills
Paine works with Oregon districts to refine lockdown procedures and develop teaching materials. Before conducting drills, leaders should organize districtwide discussions, conversations with first responders and orientation activities. Classroom lessons should cover school safety, the purpose of drills and what to do in an emergency, Paine says.
Teachers of young children must communicate the purpose of a lockdown delicately, Paine says. Convey a lockdown as part of “staying safe at school.”
Also, use terms like “stranger danger,” a concept familiar to most young students, she says.
And instead of using the term “barricade” during a drill, teachers may suggest that students “build a fort to keep the dangerous person out,” Paine says.
During classroom lessons, teachers can reassure elementary school students that school is a safe place. But students must also know to listen closely to teachers’ directions to either “get out” or “hide out” in the classroom during a crisis.
Managing trauma and school safety
Similarly, teachers should instruct middle and high school students to follow directions and remain calm. With older students, educators can discuss options for evacuation that include exiting through a window, Paine says.
Older students should also know that self-defense is an option as are measures to distract an intruder, such as by throwing an object, or trying to run at or past the shooter to escape, she says.
Regardless of students’ ages, schools should always announce when an active shooter drill will occur. “There are some people who feel that the drill should be as realistic as possible,” Paine says.
“That is not what we would recommend at all because it will increase the psychological trauma to students, and there is potential for people to do harm to the person pretending to be a shooter.”
Check social media
Adults or students who are uncomfortable with drills should be allowed to sit in a separate room while they are being conducted or be excused from the building. Then, they can be provided with safety information via written or digital materials, or in a one-on-one setting with a counselor or therapist, Paine says.
Teachers and staff should also train to recognize common traumatic reactions. This helps them identify when a student or fellow staff member should be removed from the drill, Paine says.
Drills should take place early enough in the day to allow for the debriefing of participants and to assess any adverse reactions, Paine says.
After a drill, school psychologists and counselors should monitor students for emotional or physical reactions. These reactions can lag following a “highly intense” simulation, Paine says.
Administrators can also check social media for any concerns among the school community. Another benefit of publicizing drills ahead of time: When an actual emergency occurs, everyone in a school will know to take immediate and appropriate action, Paine says.
Adjusting on the fly
In Michigan, Glen Lake Community Schools’ first active shooter drill involved only staff members. They practiced 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,” says Marcus Mead, Glen Lake’s director of administrative and instructional technology.
“Giving staff opportunities to practice is absolutely critical to how they might perform in a real active shooter event,” Mead says. “The cognitive shift that people have to make from life as usual to my life is in danger is very difficult. We can plan all day long, but in that moment if a plan is leading you into harm’s way, you must have the ability to make a new plan on the fly.”
Administrators should have an intervention and safety team meet at least quarterly to evaluate and update emergency response plans. The team should also seek guidance from police and emergency responders.
The team should consist of teachers, counselors, school nurses, department heads, parent representatives, law enforcement officials and emergency responders, says Joseph Erardi Jr., who became superintendent of schools in Newtown, Connecticut, shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting.
This regular dialogue with emergency responders should cover safety improvements, the sharing of building floor plans, and the evaluation of districtwide emergency protocols, he says.
‘Last line of defense’
Glen Lake installed sensors that detect when a gun is discharged in a school. The district also put police call boxes in classrooms. If pulled, these call boxes—like fire alarms—alert school staff to an active shooter via computer desktops and text messages. The boxes also alert local law enforcement authorities.
New technologies have made it easier to improve emergency response. But Mead considers alarm and detection systems as “literally our last line of defense.”
“They’re what we count on when everything else we have in place has failed.”