In one school district, kids exposed to violence at school felt safer after participating in a lockdown drill and training

Students who are exposed to violence at school tend to feel less safe, but a new study suggests that lockdown drills and training – designed to prepare students and teachers for a school shooting – may help mitigate those fears.

The study is based on a survey of thousands of students in the Syracuse City School District, a large, urban school district in central New York. Kids in grades 6 and up were asked if they had experienced seven types of violence-related incidents during the school year, including physical fights, bullying and seeing someone bring a gun to school. An index measure of these experiences was compared against feelings of safety a three different points: at the start of the school year, after a lockdown drill a few months later and after a training that took place after winter break.

Overall, the relationship between exposure to violence and perceived school safety weakened over time, suggesting that the negative effect that exposure to violence can have on feelings of safety “matters less after students have completed both drills and training,” the researchers wrote.

However, the more students are exposed to violence, the less prepared they feel to respond to emergencies – and lockdown drills don’t seem to affect that perception much.

The new peer-reviewed research, published Friday in the Journal of School Violence, is the latest addition to a growing – and debated – understanding of how lockdown drills affect children.

Earlier research using the same survey of students in Syracuse painted a different picture. When exposure to violence was left out the equation, students were more likely to say they felt prepared for an emergency after the drills compared with before. But those results also showed that students were actually less likely to report feeling safe at school or in various parts of the building after the drills.

The new finding “contradicts claims that the drills traumatize children, without making them feel safer,” a news release about the new study said.

Instead, exposure to school violence may have a more consequential impact on a student’s perceived safety than the drills themselves, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government and lead author of both research papers.

“By considering other factors that simultaneously may be impacting students’ perceived safety within their school, what it’s really underscoring is that there are a lot of processes at work in a school that have to be considered when we’re thinking about overall well-being,” Schildkraut said. “These impacts, they don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re coexisting and co-impacting.”

The vast majority of public school in the United States conduct lockdown drills, and some states mandate them. There are some general steps to a lockdown – including turning off the lights and securing behind a locked door – but the drills are generally not standardized, and there’s debate about the psychological impact they may have.

In 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement with best practice recommendations.

“We tried to distinguish the drills or exercises that help children better prepare, with the goal to try and minimize the amount of distress these activities might cause,” said Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and lead author of the AAP statement. High-intensity exercises, such as those that involve simulations of distressing events or are not announced as a drill, are discouraged.

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety, a group working to end gun violence, to publicly condemn active shooter drills in schools. Instead of active shooter drills, the groups recommend a more “comprehensive” approach that doesn’t involve students, but rather staff training on lockout procedures and emergency medical procedures and enacting Extreme Risk laws, which don’t allow people who demonstrate risk of harming themselves or others to buy a firearm.

When weighing the costs and benefits of lockdown drills, experts say that the most important measure is whether they keep kids safe, which needs more research. But approaches should consider that many students have had adverse experiences in their life that may affect the way they react and respond to lockdown drills.

“We always have to be concerned that there may be children who have had violence or adverse experiences in their lives that we are not aware of,” Schonfeld said. “It isn’t just for active shooter drills. I think any activity that we do that reminds children of their potential vulnerability can be upsetting.”

The latest study wasn’t able to track how perceptions of individual students changed over time and while the findings show a relationship among various factors, it’s not possible to conclude that the trends are directly linked. Also, the findings are based on surveys of students in one school district, which took a particular “trauma-informed” approach to drills and training, aimed at mitigating potential psychological effects.

“It’s not always what you do, but how you do it,” Schildkraut said. “And I think a lot of the misunderstanding in this space is about extrapolating; When you’re asking people about perceptions of safety or preparedness, those questions are not measuring anxiety. Feeling safe at school is a subjective assessment of your surroundings and whether you are in a protective environment.”

CNN’s Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at