Why one state is reining in active shooter drills in its schools

New Washington law bars live simulations or reenactments of active shooter scenarios that are not trauma-informed.
By: | March 25, 2022

A growing number of voices in and around education have raised an alarm by asserting that active school shooter drills may be doing more harm than good.

Safety exercises that are too realistic are more likely to traumatize students and staff than teach them how to protect themselves, say mental health professionals and groups including Everytown for Gun Safety, which formed after the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012. “It’s now clear that unannounced active shooter drills are scaring America’s students without making them any safer,” Everytown said in a recent report. “We need to listen to the experts and focus on addressing gun violence before it begins rather than subjecting our kids to counterproductive drills.”

Now, one state has passed a law that restricts how active shooter drills can be conducted: “Lockdown drills may not include live simulations of or reenactments of active shooter scenarios that are not trauma-informed and age and developmentally appropriate,” says the bill signed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on March 17. The measure also requires school leaders to give students and staff prior notification of drills, MYNorthwest.com reported.

There is scant evidence that safety exercises that simulate gun violence are effective at preventing deaths in school shootings, a 2020 Everytown for Gun Safety report concluded.

“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 for Gun Safety recommends:

  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.

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While authentic drills can help staff and students prepare to react appropriately, realistic drills can cause emotional distress, particularly when the exercises include graphic videos, sounds of gunfire or plastic projectiles, DA guest columnist Dean Waddell wrote. The resulting trauma can actually leave staff and students less prepared. “Children can be especially susceptible to traumatic impacts from active shooter and lockdown drills, even when they are told it is just a drill,” Waddell wrote. “Many kids see the news reports about school shootings and react very emotionally to simulated lockdowns, exhibiting the same response as those who have been in real lockdown incidents.”

The National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers have also offered guidance on such drills in their report, “Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills.

Elevated levels of school violence

Pushback against active shooter drills is growing at the same time schools have experienced unprecedented levels of gunfire, according to data released by Everytown for Gun Safety last month. The highest-ever level of gun violence at schools occurred during the beginning of this school year, the group said.

In at least 136 instances of gunfire this past fall, some 26 people were killed and 96 wounded. That’s the highest number in a five-month period since 2013, the year that the nonprofit began tracking such incidents. In all of 2021, there were at least 202 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, killing 49 and wounding 126, according to Everytown’s database.

One-third of teachers reported experiencing at least one threatening incident of violence from students during COVID, including verbal threats, cyberbullying, intimidation and sexual harassment, according to an American Psychology Association survey of 15,000 school staff members covering July 2020 to June 2021.

An even higher number of administrators—over 40%—reported being threatened with violence by parents. “Even when many schools were implementing remote or hybrid instruction, there were substantial rates of student physical violence—e.g., objects thrown at participants, ordinary objects weaponized and physical attacks—against teachers and school personnel,” says the survey released earlier this month. “These rates of violence are extremely problematic and may contribute to teachers and school personnel wanting to quit or transfer.”