Resilience

School Active Shooter Drills – From Anxiety to Apathy

by Robert C. Hutchinson

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act (MSDHSPSA) was approved by the Florida governor on 9 March 2018. The act implemented numerous new, and at times controversial, laws and requirements for schools, law enforcement, mental health officials, and others. Included in the law was the new requirement for schools to conduct active shooter drills as often as other emergency drills. Since fire drills are usually conducted once a month, the new requirement greatly expanded the number of active shooter (or code red) drills from approximately one to ten per school year in Florida schools.

This increase in active shooter drill training was likely overdue, but the extent of the expansion could be counterproductive. Anecdotal observations and discussions have raised great concerns that the expansion of these drills in such a short time period has created anxiety among many students and staff. It is feared that this initial anxiety shall transition into apathy over time with a possible 900% increase in active killer drills. A review of the frequently lackadaisical response of students to repeated fire drills demonstrates their fluctuating level of appreciation of the seriousness in the evacuations over time.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) created guidance in December 2014 regarding the Best Practice Considerations for School in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills. The guidance addressed numerous concerns and considerations to include that drills are critical but they can risk causing harm to students and staff. The appropriate number and design of active shooter or code red drills require additional research and analysis to best balance preparedness and impact on the participants.

Emergency Drills

The identification and classification of emergency drills can vary from state to state and school district to school district. The definition of a code red lockdown/drill and an active shooter/assailant lockdown/drill has created confusion at times for schools, first responders, and parents. In many locations, a code red lockdown/drill may include many immediate threats to include an active shooter. A code red lockdown may include an array of possible threats including a fleeing suspect or trespasser on campus to a noncompliant person on campus posing an immediate threat or possibility to evolve into one. Not all code reds/lockdowns involve an active shooter, but all active shooters would involve a code red lockdown or related response.

Beyond a code red, schools may utilize other emergency codes for various threats from an incident near the school campus to a threat on the campus that requires an evacuation in addition to fire drills. A code yellow lockdown may involve law enforcement activity near a school campus that could affect school operations and transition to the campus requiring a code red. The implementation of code yellow procedures also permits the school campus to better prepare for a code red if necessary by restricting movement and securing the campus.

Additional emergency codes can be utilized for evacuations, shelter-in-place, or other instructions for threats inside or outside school buildings or campuses to address a myriad of concerns. There continues to be discussions if emergency codes or plain language communications are more efficient and effective for an incident. Staff and students could confuse codes, but they could also misinterpret instructions that may differ in a time of evolving chaos.

NASP developed a brief guide for schools to mitigate the psychological effects of lockdowns. In this guide, NASP identified that “differentiating lockdowns can help to mitigate potentially traumatic experiences when situations are occurring in the community and are not an immediate threat to the school.” The importance of working with first responders and outside partners is vital to ensure a common understanding of definitions, policies, and response plans to avoid confusion with different emergency codes or incidents.

Expansion of Drills

The MSDHSPSA amended Florida Statute 1006.07 regarding student discipline and school safety to include:

EMERGENCY DRILLS; EMERGENCY PROCEDURES – (a) Formulate and prescribe policies and procedures, in consultation with the appropriate public safety agencies, for emergency drills and for actual emergencies, including, but not limited to, fires, natural disasters, active shooter and hostage situations, and bomb threats, for all students and faculty at all the public schools of the district comprised of grades K-12. Drills for active shooter and hostage situations shall be conducted at least as often as other emergency drills. District school board policies shall include commonly used alarm system responses for specific types of emergencies and verification by each school that drills have been provided as required by law and fire protection codes. The emergency response policy shall identify the individuals responsible for contacting the primary emergency response agency and the emergency response agency that is responsible for notifying the school district for each type of emergency.

The preparedness and psychological impact of the expansion of active shooter drills at the same frequency as fire drills in Florida is unknown this early in the MSDHSPSA implementation. Conducting an active shooter/emergency code drill and a fire drill each month in every school, no matter the grade level, shall likely have unintended consequences beyond the intentions of the new law for the pendulum has apparently swung from one extreme to the other. There is a need for additional information and guidance.

Federal Guidance

In 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report entitled Most School Districts Have Developed Emergency Management Plans, but Would Benefit From Additional Federal Guidance (GAO-07-609). The report found that “most school districts have taken federally recommended steps to plan and prepare for emergencies, including the development of emergency management plans, but many plans do not include recommended practices.”

Although the GAO report did not focus directly on drills, it estimated that 70% of all school districts struggled to balance their primary duties of education and emergency management activities with the limited training time, opportunities, and resources. GAO stated that 73% of the surveyed schools conducted some type of drill or exercise to include evacuations, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place.

The report found that the federal government had a recommended practice to “conduct regular drills” to prepare for emergencies. The 2007 report repeatedly identified pandemic flu as a serious threat rather than an active shooter, an indicator of the greatest perceived threats at the time.

In 2016, a GAO report, entitled Improved Federal Coordination Could Better Assist K-12 Schools Prepare for Emergencies (GAO-16-144), found that an estimated 67% of surveyed districts conducted active shooter exercises. Officials from two districts interviewed by GAO believed that exercises can create anxiety with the school community, especially with younger children. The report, focusing on federal coordination, did not discuss the frequency of exercises and any possible impact. The GAO report concluded that “an existing federal interagency group on active shooters was not created to address the range of threats and hazards schools face, nor to be specific to schools’ needs, which, given the presence of young children, can differ significantly from those of other institutions.”

The Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, issued in December 2018, found that “a robust training and exercise program is essen­tial to successfully addressing the complex active shooter threat.” The report stated that active shooter training should be age appropriate for the students and designed to not unduly traumatize the students and staff. The commission identified the following recommendation for the federal government:

In order to assist schools in deciding the optimal approach to preparing students for active shooter situations, federal agencies should work with school security stakeholders to identify and develop recommended, age-specific best practices or options for consideration for active shooter training and exercises for students spanning the K–12 spectrum.

The commission identified the following recommendation for state and local communities:

All schools should conduct active shooter training and exercises for staff on a recurring basis as well as age-appropriate active shooter training for students. Exercises might include evaluations that assess the participant’s ability to meet exercise objectives and capabilities, and document strengths, areas for improvement, core capability performance, and corrective actions in an After-Action Report or Improvement Plan. Following the exercise, organizations should develop a plan to implement the corrective actions identified during the exercise to improve plans, build and sustain capabilities, and maintain readiness.

The commission report identified the importance of training and exercise/drill design, but did not address the more specific topics of frequency and duration considerations.

NASP/NASRO Guidance

The NASP/NASRO document provides information and guidance for consideration when developing and conducting armed assailant drills at schools. As an overview, the document found:

  • Response to armed assailants has focused on implementing a school lockdown. Recently, discussion has emphasized options-based approaches, which sometimes include the “Run, Hide, Fight” model.
  • Armed assailant drills have both benefits and concerns associated with their implementation.
  • Armed assailants in schools account for only 1% of homicides among school-age youth; schools must balance costs and benefits when allocating crisis preparedness resources.
  • Such drills have the potential to empower staff and save lives, but without proper caution, they can risk causing harm to participants.
  • Available research supports the effectiveness of lockdown drills carried out according to best practices, but research is still needed on the effectiveness of armed assailant drills.

The NASP/NASRO document addresses numerous issues such as drill planning and keeping simulation techniques appropriate to the developmental maturity of the participants, a critical subject with the wide-range of students and staff throughout a school district.

The document finds that “regular practice helps participants develop readiness and quickly access and apply knowledge.” However, the guidance does not mandate student participation in drills and permits staff to opt out for less intense instruction such as a tabletop exercise. The failure to train students and staff to a unified and common standard could create considerable confusion during an actual event. Regrettably, the cost of confusion and delay has been well documented during many critical events.

The document stresses that drills that include all students and staff have the potential for causing harm to them. According to the findings, “an individual’s cognitive and developmental levels, personality, history of adverse or traumatic experiences, and psychological makeup are among the many factors that influence the potential for harm.” Accepting the position regarding the potential for harm from NASP/NASRO, the question arises would a higher frequency of drills lessen or expand this possible harm. One of the most important findings of the document was that “at present there is no empirical research regarding school-based armed assailant drills.”

©iStock.com/Susan Vineyard

Mitigating Psychological Effects

Active shooter training for staff that simulates an actual attack with blank gunfire, simulated bullets, and other tactics can provide a realistic environment to better prepare them to react, but may exacerbate psychological trauma. Understanding what gunshots would sound like echoing through a school building is a tremendously valuable lesson to reduce future reaction time, but there can be a real psychological cost for this training. However, stories of teachers being shot execution style with plastic pellets during active shooter training may require additional research and analysis to validate the benefits as compared to the costs.

The NASP brief guide for schools to mitigate psychological effects of lockdowns explains how schools have been involved in preparing for and responding to safety threats for decades, to include lockdown drills to secure schools from an immediate threat. The guide declares “however, depending on circumstances, some lockdowns may produce anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms in some students or staff, as well as loss of instructional time.”

The NASP guidance provides enormously valuable information to better plan, prepare, and execute a drill or lockdown without discussion regarding frequency of execution. NASP believes that “armed assailant drills that are not conducted appropriately may cause physical and psychological harm to students and staff, not to mention disruption to the overall learning environment.” Consequently, further research and consideration are required to determine if excessively conducted drills, appropriate in nature or not, could cause physical and psychological harm to students, staff, parents, and the general community.

Evidence-Based Guidance

Safety consultants can disagree on the value and design of active shooter training and drills that are not supported by evidence. The drill disagreements include the frequency of active shooter incidents as compared to other incidents on school campuses for the development of training and drills. The proponents of active shooter training and drills consistently stress the fact that required fire drills are regularly conducted and a life has not been lost in a school fire for many decades – something that cannot be said for active shooter attacks.

The popular ALICE (Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate) training program is utilized by numerous school districts and law enforcement agencies around the country. The program addresses many of the critical elements for active shooting training and lockdowns. However, the “counter” component to attack the armed assailant with objects as a last resort has not been a proven tactic. There is a concern by some school safety consultants that this training could also cause staff or students to leave a shelter location to confront an active shooter when they should not.

According to Steve Brock, a professor of school psychology at California State University, in a September 2017 Education Week article stated, “there’s not enough research to support ALICE and similar training in schools.” Brock supports lockdown drills without unnecessarily frightening students and staff with more elaborate training scenarios.

If the efficacy of active shooter training has not been adequately researched and could be harmful, it raises the question of why states across the nation have increased their mandatory drill requirements since the attacks at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. According to Professor James Fox at Northeastern University in a September 2018 Medium article:

“Schools are in a difficult position,” Fox says. “They feel that they should do something.” Active shooter drills are a quick, understandable way to prepare for a school shooting, and law enforcement can conduct them in a couple hours on a Tuesday morning. The drills make people, particularly the lawmakers, administrators, and parents who don’t have to endure them, feel safe, even if they’re not making children much safer at all.

Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, has questioned the value of active shooter and other emergency training and drills without specific research and information to support their validity. In a 2014 Emergency Management article, Dorn said one of the reasons for his concern “is the heavy emphasis on the active shooter scenario, which ignores other threats, and that some of the training is not evidence-based and not proven to work, such as the Run, Hide, Fight video.”

In addition to safety consultants and academics, some practitioners also question the harm created by active shooter drills. A number of educational professionals promote not conducting the active killer drills at all, even after so many school attacks. For example, Michael J. Maguire, a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, advocates putting an end to the practice. Maguire believes that:

Halting active shooter drills does not mean we do nothing to protect students from the worst. Training teachers for emergency situations is prudent and inflicts no trauma upon children. 

Need for Further Research

Beyond the lack of abundant evidence-based research documenting the effectiveness of active shooter training and drills, the appropriate frequency and duration of these drills is even more unconfirmed by sufficient evidence-based research. The impact of the change in the frequency of active shooter drills requires additional research and discussion to assess the costs and benefits of a massive swing of the pendulum. Without this analysis, the actions of lawmakers and others may be causing more harm than good and not better preparing the nation’s schools.

These good intentions need additional research and information to ensure that any massive increase in active shooter drills is truly beneficial for the participants and overall educational environment. No school or community shall benefit from their students and staff transitioning from anxiety to apathy on their campus due to a possibly excessive mandate of monthly active shooter drills. An evidence-based balance must be identified to properly prepare for an active shooter attack without creating additional harm along the way.

Robert C. Hutchinson was the chief of police for the Broward County Public Schools, Special Investigative Unit from 2016 to 2019. He was the former deputy special agent in charge and acting special agent in charge with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, Florida. He retired in 2016 after more than 28 years as a special agent with DHS and the legacy U.S. Customs Service. He was previously the deputy director and acting director for the agency’s national emergency preparedness division and assistant director for its national firearms and tactical training division. His writings and presentations often address the important need for cooperation, coordination and collaboration between the fields of public health, emergency management and law enforcement. He received his graduate degrees at the University of Delaware in public administration and Naval Postgraduate School in homeland security studies.