Are school lockdown drills helping?

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer

Of all the posts from people grappling with the Florida school shooting that flooded my social media feeds this week, one in particular, shared by a fellow mom at my 9-year-old daughter’s school, stood out:

“I want to seriously talk about active shooter drills in school right now,” it began. “We need to stop and rethink what we are teaching children about school shootings.

“American moms and dads — we have to engage with our school boards NOW and think about what we are allowing to be done to our children and what unintended consequences are possible.”

The post then proceeds to go through the possible problems — that they give “potential school shooters fantasy dry runs and information,” “normalize school shootings,” and inflict “psychological damage.” Plus, she notes, “safety experts disagree about whether ‘lockdown’ is the best option,” or “whether students should be taught to more actively resist.”

Parents reacted with worried, fearful comments. “I can absolutely attest that it is traumatizing for the kids. My nine-year-old panicked just knowing she would have the drill that day,” noted one, while another reported, “When I taught 1st grade and had these drills, the kids always asked ‘are we going to be ok, is someone here, are we going to die?’”

Another teacher had this to say: “It sickens me when I have to teach my kindergarteners how to behave in a lockdown drill. I tell them it’s to stay away from all windows just in case (and I assure them it wouldn’t happen) a big tornado or hurricane comes. … Sadly and inevitably some of them know the truth.”

It all gave me chills — not because my own daughter has reported any anxiety (“The fire drills are scarier,” she told me, “because we don’t know if they’re just drills or not”) — but because all I really know about the lockdown drills are what come through school emails. (“Dear Families,” read the latest, “Participating in emergency preparedness drills empowers our students to feel more in control of situations that might otherwise be frightening and disorienting.”)

To break it all down, I spoke with some school safety pros — including Ohio-based school safety expert and consultant Ken Trump, with 30 years of experience in the field. “Sandy Hook was a punch in the gut to parents around the world, and people have been reacting emotionally and not cognitively ever since,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle, noting that such reactions become reignited after news of any other shooting, such as this week’s in Florida. “People are grasping at straws and looking for a quick fix,” he says, “and the mantra is always, ‘Do something, do anything, do it fast.’”

But, Trump explains, “next year will be 20 years since Columbine, and there are some best practices that still apply.” Namely? Lockdown drills — the kind practiced at my daughter’s school, which entail kids hiding in the corner of their locked classroom and remaining very quiet and still.

“Lockdowns work,” he stresses, while also offering his opinion that other, less passive, approaches to emergency drills do not.

Such alternatives, Trump says, are adopted more and more as parents grasp for a new route in order to feel more empowered. “I’ve had superintendents tell me, ‘I agree with lockdowns … but I have to do something different, or appear to be doing something different, because it’s the only thing calming our parents,’” he says. “And that’s dangerous.”

A recent Education Week story explores the “something different” that more and more schools are adopting: “Most controversially, the drills also teach young students how to ‘counter’ a shooter by running in zig-zag patterns, throwing objects, and screaming to make it difficult for a gunman to focus and aim.”

The leader in this new, proactive approach is ALICE, an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. It was developed by former police officer Greg Crane and his wife, Lisa Crane, a former school principal, after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. Crane told Education Week that the program has really taken off since the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, with ALICE-trained personnel in about 4,000 school districts across the country.

“There is a new standard of care which emphasizes the need for proactive, options-based strategies,” the website explains. “The federal and state government recommendations, as well as major law enforcement associations, support these strategies. ALICE Training is the model upon which these official recommendations were built.”

School safety expert Trump has been a consistent and outspoken critic of the ALICE technique — which includes training teachers and students to throw objects at a shooter and assess whether they should evacuate on their own — claiming that its approach is not proved by research and may in fact put children in harm’s way. As an alternative, he suggests “diversifying” lockdown drills by practicing them at various times — in the morning, during a class change, and at lunchtime, for example — or maybe while blocking an exit during a fire drill and testing kids that way. “It pushes the envelope without going over the top,” he says.

A 2013 federal report, created in response to Sandy Hook, suggested that school staffers consider disrupting a shooter through aggressive force. Though it did not advocate students getting involved, some school safety experts criticized the report, cautioning that such an approach could be too risky.

Whatever approach a school uses, a key element is knowing how to strike a balance between preparing children and traumatizing them for life. That’s something the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) took into careful consideration before releasing its “Best Practices Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills” document in 2014 (and updating it in 2017).

“It’s really sad we have to be doing this, but unfortunately for the safety of kids and staff, we have to,” Cathy Paine, a psychologist and leader with the school safety and crisis response committee of NASP, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Lockdown drills, she says, should definitely be done in grades K-12 for students and staff. “We do not see any psychological harm” as a result, she says, as long as the drills are planned out carefully and are tailored to the students’ development level.

So in elementary school, Paine explains, “we talk about ‘stranger danger,’ a concept they already understand. We say that schools are generally safe, but if a stranger were here and dangerous, here’s what we would do. … We try to keep it positive. … We don’t talk about a ‘shooter’ but a ‘dangerous person.’” She adds, “If a teacher is calm and uses the right language, I’ve not seen adverse reactions,” and says NASP suggests more specific language for children with special needs.

While the NASP does not endorse any specific program, Paine says, “The basic lockdown drill is still what we want people to know how to do, and adds that an important part of any drill is to always announce that it’s just a drill, which ‘reduces the anxiety about it.’” Unlike with fire drills, to which Paine says, “I’m guessing schools might start changing their procedures around that,” particularly after the role the fire alarm played in Parkland.

When it comes to teachers and other school staffers, in addition to knowing the lockdown drill, Paine notes, “the new thinking is, if there’s an armed intruder, you should know you have three choices, and so you’re trained to use any information that you have, such as hearing an announcement that there’s an intruder, or hearing gunshots.” Then, based on that information, you make the decision about whether to evacuate the kids (always the best option if it’s safe), go into lockdown mode, or, as a last resort, distract the shooter and then get out quickly.

“We don’t teach kids to fight or aggressively attack, but to not be passive if a shooter is in the room with you,” she says.

To parents who wonder why kids need to be involved at all in drills, Paine explains, “It’s important they have enough knowledge that’s appropriate for their development level.” So for high school students, that means learning to make many of these crucial decisions on their own. But even little kids need to be informed in some way, she stresses. “If you’re a 5-year-old, and you hear about [a shooting like the one in Florida], you might think, ‘What if it happens at my school?’ I think it’s worse for them to know nothing and be afraid.”

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