What should active shooter training look like now?

5 ideas for lockdown drills to help avoid further traumatizing already-anxious students when schools reopen

In the recently released final season of the trending Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, the teenage characters who have already gone through unimaginable trauma are subjected to a full-scale active shooter drill with sounds of bullets and local police in the hallways without any warning. One of the main characters of the show becomes so distressed by the experience that he lashes out at school administration afterward.

Knowing that students in real life have gone through unprecedented extended school closures, isolation, and, in some cases, loss because of the novel coronavirus, school administrators should ensure any drills related to armed intruders will not further traumatize already-anxious students or endanger them when they come back to school this fall.

“We need to be thinking about what can impact kids and practice this in a well thought out, nonreactive, trauma-informed way,” says Terri Erbacher, a certified school psychologist at Delaware County (Pa.) Intermediate Unit, licensed psychologist, and clinical associate professor at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Erbacher has helped organize a full-scale armed intruder drill involving first responders in her district. “We don’t drown a building in smoke for a fire drill,” she notes, referring to how drills need not reproduce every detail of a crisis to be effective.

Incorporate these ideas into armed intruder drills for this upcoming school year:

1. Organize table-top discussions.

Invite students to sit around tables at safe distances with you and other staff members and discuss what they are supposed to do if an active shooter enters campus, Erbacher says. Brainstorm together about where might be a good place to hide. You may want to ask students to think about where several of them can fit and, depending on their age or developmental level, why they need to be quiet while they hide. Show students a map of the school and talk about where they could go if they were not in a classroom when confronted with an active shooter. Discuss how older students may run out of a school exit, if they are near one, or into the nearest classroom or office; and younger students may run to the nearest classroom or office. Also talk about how fighting back might be a last resort.

2. Avoid crowding students together when walking them through steps.

Rather than have students practice huddling in a corner or in a closet to hide and violate social distancing guidelines and potentially upset already rattled students, ask two students at a time to practice going to a hiding area or sitting quietly at their desks while maintaining social distancing. Allow them to do this for a short period of time to get a sense of what they would need to do if an armed intruder were on campus, Erbacher says. “Considering both the trauma of COVID-19 and social distancing, there’s no reason to have every student practicing at once.”

3. Publicize every drill.

If school officials believe they can hold a larger-scale drill involving first responders while maintaining social distancing, make sure everyone knows about the drill. “There is no reason not to be clear that this is a drill,” she says. “We are traumatizing kids when we’re [surprising them]. Students have texted their parents to say goodbye.” Also let parents and the surrounding community know beforehand so they don’t become alarmed, she adds. Share the exact time, such as 9:33 a.m., that the drill will take place.

4. Meet with students ahead of time to discuss what the drill will look and sound like.

Find out if any of them would prefer to spend the lockdown in the guidance office rather than a classroom because of past trauma or other issues, Erbacher says. “We had a student who stayed in the guidance office because of a history of abuse.” You may also want to send a student home before the drill if you, the student, and his parents suspect the drill may be triggering, Erbacher advises. You would just want to make sure the student participates in the table-top discussions to ensure he is prepared in the event of a real emergency.

Also read: Why schools should drop unannounced active shooter drills


5. Debrief students.

Ensure students know they can come to you after a discussion about an active shooter or a drill to talk if they are upset, Erbacher says. “The key is to communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep the conversation open throughout the process.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

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