How schools can prevent trauma during emergency exercises

Tabletop drills provide a safer environment to make sound decisions
By: | March 15, 2018

School leaders everywhere have experienced parent, staff and student anxiety about school safety following the tragic attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

While these emotionally charged climates are understandable, making knee-jerk decisions with a “do something, do anything, do it now” mantra can lead to high-risk, high-liability actions that administrators and boards may regret down the road.

How can administrators avoid having school emergency plans collect dust on a shelf at one extreme, while not going over the top with hastily planned drills that do more harm than good at the other extreme?

Dramatic drills can be costly

Full-scale exercises and drills can be helpful to see how multi-agency emergency response plans might play out in a real-life crisis. Properly planned exercises and drills can be labor-intensive, and can take months to plan, organize and execute. Poorly planned exercises may be implemented more quickly, but they can come with a cost.

One insurance company has reportedly paid out more than $1 million in claims for injuries school officials have suffered during active-shooter training over the last two years. A company spokesperson said most injuries involve sprains, broken bones or cuts caused by falls while participants were running.

Several years ago, an elementary school principal broke bones in her shoulder during options-based, active-shooter school training, while another teacher suffered a permanent disability to his hand and arm during a similar training program.

Some of these injuries have resulted in lawsuits.

Leaders must also consider the potential psychological impact that highly dramatic drills and exercises may have on their students. We know of situations where teachers and support staff have been traumatized during active shooter drills. Prior life experiences with trauma and other psychological triggers can influence these responses.

Tabletop exercises provide options

One key word when considering school drills is “reasonableness.” Leaders can push the envelope some by diversifying their drills but must also beware of crossing the line of reasonableness. “Do no harm” is a good measure for making sure that school emergency exercises and drills are meaningful without causing trauma.

Tabletop exercises provide a simulation of emergency situations in informal, stress-free classroom training environments. Exercise facilitators—often professionals experienced in school emergencies and crisis situations—provide a scenario to stimulate discussions that help participants assess their existing plans.

Tabletop exercises also allow school participants to examine the team roles, responsibilities, tasks and overall logistics that may be associated with managing real-life emergencies and adjust their school plans.

It is important to have the right players at these exercises. Diverse participants—including district and local crisis team members, first responders, mental health professionals, communications staff, school support staff, and other school-community stakeholders—can enrich the process.

Bringing these diverse perspectives together in a half-day professional development setting can lead to substantial changes in school emergency plans.

Hypothetical scenarios addressing common crisis incident elements—such as parent-student reunification, mobilization of transportation and food services, medication and nursing triage, media communications and staging, and other issues—can lead to substantial improvements in creating school emergency plans.

Plans that are tweaked based upon tabletop exercises held today can lead to better responses should a tragic event occur tomorrow.

Ken Trump ( is the president of National School Safety and Security Services.