The day after Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a blaring alarm went off at the elementary school one block from my home. It was the middle of recess, and I saw confused first graders and slightly toughened fifth graders scramble toward their classrooms. I later discovered that I had witnessed the school’s first active shooter drill—designed to train staff and students, while setting parents’ minds at ease.
This is the world in which we send our children to school. A world of Sandy Hooks, Virginia Techs, Columbines—and the occasional false alarm. Such tragedies are rare (the risk of dying in a school shooting is about 1 in 614 million and those odds may be declining) but drills to prepare for an active shooter intuitively make sense, the same way drills to prepare for fires strike the ear as sound. Yet experts are not convinced. While there are clear benefits to training faculty and first responders to maneuver efficiently during emergencies, there’s scant evidence that students internalize skills acquired during drills. And active shooter drills may undermine students’ sense of security, triggering long-term psychological impacts. Especially if these drills are of the “high-intensity” variety, which feature real or fake weapons, fake bullets and blanks, fake blood, rubber bullets being strewn at teachers, and sometimes, faculty and students unaware that the drill is even a drill at all.
As of late August, 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out against high-intensity active shooter drills, suggesting that there’s scant evidence that they prepare children or teachers for the possibility of a mass casualty event, but lots of evidence that the drills can traumatize children and teachers. They’ve instead called for a heavier investment in preventative measures like mental health services at school and social-emotional training, and a focus on active shooter drills that look more like fire drills.
“Active shooter drills are a constant reminder that you’ve got a bullseye on your back,” James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northwestern University who studies mass shootings. “In the wake of a shooting, students sometimes say that if there had been drills they would have known what to do. Maybe. I’m not sure there’s hard evidence it would have prepared them.”
“It can create feelings of helplessness,” adds Jillian Peterson, a psychologist at Hamline University who has conducted research on the psychological effects of active shooter drills.
“This is the world you live in, and all we can do is practice.”
Disaster drills (and their psychological fallout) are nothing new to public schools. Children of the 1960s still remember hiding under their desks at the height of the Cold War, awaiting nuclear annihilation. The bomb never came, but studies suggest psychological damage was done. Students were more likely to doodle mushroom clouds and pictures of their own deaths in the hours following a nuclear drill. “On those days when we did the drills, I’d go home and lie awake thinking about what that’d really be like,” Fox says. “I’m not sure those drills were worthwhile.”
After the 1999 shooting at Columbine, active shooter drills became standard fare at many public schools and, following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, the U.S. Department of Education issued formal recommendations for lockdown drills under the “Run, Hide, Fight” model (a tiered approach that teaches students to run or hide and, as a last resort, fight for their lives). The U.S. General Accountability Office reports that 40 states now mandate active shooter drills in public schools. It’s impossible to determine whether drills have helped, since school shootings are so uncommon, but there is isolated evidence of harm. Since all students are taught how to respond to an active shooter, budding murderers are getting the same information on how lockdowns work as everyone else. Indeed, there is now evidence that the Parkland shooter exploited what he learned during these drills to maximize casualties.
Still, studies broadly suggest that disaster response training can be worthwhile. One 2005 study found that disaster drills may increase the odds of students adapting to threats. The National Association of School Psychologists, in a nod to such studies, released a report describing best practices for running active shooter drills and minimizing psychological fallout.
“Lockdown drills, if done properly, absolutely do teach students and teachers what to do in the event of an emergency,” Katherine Cowan, communications director at NASP and coauthor of the report, told Fatherly. “If there is an assailant in the building, students and staff need to know how to lock the door, whether the door is lockable, how to cover the windows.”
Cowan does not believe it necessary, however, to conduct simulation drills like the ones the AAP just condemned as unnecessary —terrifying procedures that can involve firing fake bullets, dripping fake blood on the walls, and having actors pose as dead children. In a handful of Missouri public schools, for instance, volunteer students from the school’s drama class are painted with bleeding bullet wounds and told to act out their own deaths in front of terrified classmates as faux gunmen run about shooting blanks. These more elaborate and disturbing training programs are often provided by for-profit organizations such as The ALICE Institute, which see significant returns by selling drills that are not evidence-based. Cowan and others worry that school administrators, desperate to show that they’re trying to help, are throwing money at seemingly robust, but ultimately worthless, programs.
“The trick is understanding the difference between an effective lockdown drill, which is the gold standard, and a full-scale simulation,” Cowan says. Her report describes the psychological risks of exposing students to realistic drills, and advises that districts determined to do so give students advanced warning and allow them to opt out if they so choose. “They’re expensive, and not really necessary,” Cowan says. “There are better ways to do drills.”
On the other hand, Cowan maintains that traditional lockdown drills help as long as teachers follow simple guidelines to mitigate psychological harm. “Particularly with young children, it’s very important that adults explain everything in an age-appropriate way,” she says. “It’s also important that staff are aware of how any kind of drill situation might affect students, especially those with disabilities or those who may have previously experienced a traumatic event.”
But Fox argues that even the more tame lockdown drills are not necessarily worthwhile. “It’s questionable whether kids will recall the drills,” he says. “If there’s a true event, you go into a state of panic and a lot of your training goes out the window.”
While Fox agrees that it makes sense to train faculty and first responders, he says it’s unnecessary to rope kids into such horrors. “Airplane crashes are possible, low probability events, just like an active shooter in a school,” he says. “And all they tell you is that there’s a card in a seat. You trust the crew has been trained, and that they’ll show you what to do in the event of a water landing.”
“If you want to train the faculty, fine. They’re adults, they can probably handle it,” he says. “But all the kids need to know is that, if something bad happens, listen to the teacher.”
Besides, Fox worries that active shooter drills may in fact encourage school shootings, by bringing relatively rare tragedies into the public eye and normalizing them. “99.9 percent of kids pray nothing like this would ever happen in their school,” he says. “But there’s a small group of kids who kind of relish the idea. Drills do run the risk of reinforcing the contagion.” Peterson agrees, at least in theory. “If you’re already vulnerable, feeling suicidal, and have a history of trauma and access to weapons, I do wonder if running through these drills could influence your thinking,” she says. “Mass shootings occur in clusters. They’re socially contagious that way.”
The remote possibility of an active shooter drill influencing a student to murder his or her classmates isn’t Peterson’s primary concern. In 2015, she conducted a study that examined how students respond to active shooter training videos. She found that students felt more prepared after watching the videos, but also more fearful of becoming victims. “It’s tough having to weigh those two things against each other,” she says. “The risk of mass shootings and being more prepared on one hand; the impact of being more afraid and anxious on the other.”
Given the rarity of mass shootings and the lack of data suggesting these drills make kids safer, Peterson suspects it’s not worth it, from a psychological standpoint. “It’s important to put mass shootings in context. How much more likely are you to die from suicide? It’s a much bigger risk,” she says. “If we put as many resources into preventing suicide, we’d see better outcomes. We’ve chosen to focus on this but, in the grand scheme of risk, this is just not a big one.”
When it comes to long-term psychological harm, Peterson worries most about children developing a sense of the world as an unpredictable place. Peterson cautions that children raised in the generation of active shooter drills, who constantly feel unsafe, may become more hostile and grow up assuming that everyone is out to get them. “When we run preschoolers through these confusing drills, that’s absolutely going to shape their worldview,” she says. “It creates a bias. You interact with the world as though you believe it’s unsafe.”
Nonetheless, Cowan maintains that active shooter drills can be done well and can include even young children with low risk of causing psychological trauma. “If those drills are being done properly, it’s okay to be doing them with the students,” she says. “Students need to know what to expect if that alert comes out, and they need a chance to practice the protocols put in place.” Fox, on the other hand, suggests keeping children far away from active shooter drills, and instead investing in other safety measures such as bullet-resistant glass and acoustic sensors.
But parents often don’t have much say in school policy, and may find their children exposed to active shooter drills whether they like it or not. Peterson (herself a mother of three) advises concerned parents to have a frank conversation with administrators about what they hope to gain from active shooter drills. “I would tell them to train teachers,” she says. “But if they started running my kid through these drills in kindergarten, I’d definitely approach the administration.” If the school is determined to run drills involving students, Peterson suggests they think carefully about the language they’re using, and debrief the students after a drill so that they can discuss their feelings. Meanwhile, parents should be sure to pick up where the teachers leave off.
“You can do this at home,” she says. “What was it like? How did it make you feel? These harder conversations ensure that it doesn’t become like practicing for a mass shooter is nothing.”