Active shooter and lockdown drills have become commonplace in schools thanks to federal and state laws that mandate up to twelve drills a year in some districts. But, are they actually helping kids be more prepared or just traumatizing them?

Earlier this year parents in Neptune, New Jersey were outraged to find that an active shooter drill and lockdown was conducted without advance notice, further making parents across the country question the practices. And one town in Pennsylvania went as far as shooting blanks so high school students would get a sense of what it would sound like if the school really was under attack.

It’s not just students who could be traumatized either. Last year teachers at Meadonlawn Elementary School in Monticello, Indiana were mock-shot. “Four teachers at a time were taken into a room, told to crouch down and were shot execution style with some sort of projectiles—resulting in injuries to the extent that welts appeared, and blood was drawn,” the union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, wrote on Twitter.

What Happens During a Lockdown

A school lockdown drill is meant to prepare students and staff for how to proceed when an adult authority determines there is an imminent danger in the school building or surrounding campus. “Typically, there will be an announcement or an alarm, and the students quietly move to a safe place in their classrooms,” says Mac Hardy, who worked in law enforcement for 25 years and is now director of operations for the National Association of School Resource Officers. “The teachers lock the classroom doors, and everyone sits quietly and remains this way until a law enforcement officer or a school administrator clears the lockdown.”

(An announcement over the loudspeaker is not used to clear a drill, since the PA system could have been commandeered by an assailant if there were an actual attack, Mr. Hardy says.)

More than 43 states as well as the District of Columbia now require a school safety plan, and 29 states require law enforcement agencies to be involved in creating a school safety plan, according to the Education Commission of the States. At least 42 states require schools to conduct safety or security drills, and 13 require a school safety audit of school facilities. (At least five of these states require that a law enforcement agency be present during the audit.)

Lockdown Alternatives

Some schools use the lockdown drill as their primary response and don’t explore other options, says Kevin Craig, a former law enforcement officer who now is a school safety consultant with Porzio Compliance Services. Other schools, he notes, may teach students the “run, hide, fight” strategy in case sheltering in place for a lockdown turns out to not be possible. “Or as a last resort, for kids who are older and college students, they are taught that when directly confronted with a shooter, they may need to fight back,” Mr. Craig explains.

Some schools use ALICE training, Mr. Craig explains, which is an option-based training program. (ALICE is the acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.)

Formulated by a police officer to keep his wife, an elementary school principal, safe after the shootings at Columbine, the active shooter response program known as ALICE trains individuals to participate in their own survival as well as lead others to safety.

“The concept behind this is that while lockdown is still a part of it, it may not always be an option,” he says. “ALICE training can give the staff more options like evacuating the building and figuring out what to do if you are potentially confronted by an assailant. It might teach strategies like countering the attack by throwing something or distracting the shooter so others can find safety.”

Active Shooter Training and Anxiety

Regardless of what type of drill is employed, they can spark anxiety in some children, says Carole Lieberman, MD, MPH, author of “Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror.”

“Drills are almost always traumatic for students from kindergarten on up,” she says. “Some kids cling to the teacher and others can’t help anxiously laughing during a drill when they are told to be silent and then get disciplined for it, which adds to their anxiety. Most kids keep their confusion, fear, sadness, and anger inside and remain distracted by it for the rest of the day or week.” Students who already have anxiety or depression may be even more at risk according to Dr. Lieberman.

It is natural for parents to be anxious about the drills too, says Jeffrey R. Gardere, M.Phil., M.S., D.Min., PhD, ABPP, a board-certified clinical psychologist and associate professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. “But openly fretting and worrying in front of the kids will make the kids more anxious,” he says. “Instead, parents should stay focused on being empowered and getting involved in the planning process for drills.”

How to Reassure Kids

Reassure your children that the drill is not meant to scare them, but instead to prepare them in the unlikely and extremely remote case that there is an emergency at their school. “Tell your child they will learn how to protect themselves and their fellow classmates,” Dr. Gardere says. “And tell them that it will be a team effort.”

It’s also important for teachers and staffers to remain calm, says Nakia Hamlett, PhD, MEd, a visiting psychology professor at Connecticut College who specializes in mental health counseling of young adults and children.  “Adults can set the tone,” she says. “Most kids won’t worry unless we give them something to worry about, so it is important to normalize our anxiety and be good role models. Some children who tend to be worriers and who don’t do well with transitions are likely to be adversely affected.”

These students may benefit from learning mindfulness and meditation as a way to reduce their stress during a drill, Dr. Hamlett says. “Children can be taught these techniques and it is good to give them skills to use in what can feel like a terrifying situation,” she says. “If your child is sitting in an active shooter drill, it’s a good opportunity to practice deep breathing or just let your mind go to a time when you were doing something really fun. “

Finally, be in touch with your child’s school administrators to find out how active shooter drills for students are handled and how best to minimize anxiety about them for your children. “Have a dialogue about the process and what would be helpful to make your child feel safe,” she says. “There should be ongoing collaborative conversations between the parents and the school.”

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) offer guidance to schools that includes best practice considerations in active shooter and other armed assailant drills. It can be found here.

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Last Updated: Jan 15, 2020