I spend a lot of time reading articles and reports relating to the topic of active shooters. Every morning, my email inbox is stacked with no fewer than 30 messages that document everything from active shooter drills and training to ongoing active shooter events.
If the frequency of such stories is any indication, one of the more common ideas floating around the ether these days is nixing active shooter drills. The reasoning is that the drills cause psychological damage to teachers and students, particularly in the elementary grades. As one would expect, the practice of having masked men firing blanks in the hallway outside of the kindergarten is a bit terrifying to people.
I can’t say I approve of such fear-inducing tactics.
It stands to reason, however, that throwing the baby out with the bathwater with regard to active shooter drills isn’t in the best interests of schoolchildren either. As we recently saw with the Saugus shooting event in California, training matters. Students were instructed to run, hide, or fight the intruder, and they implemented that training after the shooting began. Further, teachers armed themselves with a variety of weapons, including one teacher who brandished a golf club and another a baseball bat.
Yes. Training matters, as do the lack of training and the manner of training.
With that in mind, we can break active shooter training down into two varieties: police-driven and school-driven. Let’s look at each individually.
Police-driven drills involve bringing law enforcement into the school, during which they release one of their own into the building as the shooter and then formulate a response to the ‘threat’. The details may vary – sometimes the shooter will fire blanks in the building. Sometimes they just walk around yelling ‘bang’. In one case, the police actor fired airsoft pellets at unwitting school staff, causing minor injuries.
Earlier in my teaching career, before I started training for active shooter events, I was exposed to one of these police-driven drills. I could hear the shooter as he was firing blanks in the hallway as he approached. My students were huddled in a corner of the classroom while I was situated near the door. Eventually the actor arrived at my door, where he fired a couple of rounds from his rifle seconds before responding officers arrived to take him into custody. I knew it was a drill, yet I still had the adrenaline surge associated with such an event.
These types of training events serve the police more than they serve the schools at which they are held. Students and staff lock down their locations and do their best to remain unseen and unheard while the police are moving around the building. They are, however, just props in a police training scenario. Personally, the only thing I learned from my experience was how that adrenaline surge feels when the situation got real.
Truth be known, police-driven drills can be conducted after school hours, on weekends, or during breaks when the building is otherwise empty. Having students and staff in the building does nothing to enhance the police training under most circumstances.
School-driven drills are basically lockdown drills without the roaming shooter-actor or the big police response. Teachers are instructed to move into ‘code red’ lockdown, during which they lock and barricade doors, turn off lights, move students to safety, prepare improvised weapons, and silence the room. School administrators, often with a police liaison, will go door to door and check the status of each room. When everything has been checked, an announcement is made for teachers to resume normal activities.
Later in my teaching career, I was put in charge of carrying out such drills. Our Admin team made an announcement to lock down. I was joined by a member of the school administrative team who observed as I tried to open doors. We listened for movement or noise inside of classrooms and documented our findings. After the drill, admin informed teachers that they could resume class. I later debriefed the principal of our findings.
There was little fanfare and no students reported adverse effects as a result of the drill.
When it comes to school-driven drills, my professional opinion is that we should have two separate types: those that include the whole school (students and staff) and those that include only staff. There are things teachers and admin must know that students don’t. Too much information in the hands of students can be used against the school, either accidentally (a student publicly shares their school’s safety plans) or intentionally (a student uses his knowledge of school protocols to more effectively carry out an attack).
Summing It Up
In much the same way that we don’t need to light a fire in a random wing of the school to have a fire drill, we don’t need police firing blanks in the presence of students to effectively teach active shooter response. Good training doesn’t require extreme realism to be useful to those who are most at risk of being harmed.
There exists, however, a need to hold both police- and school-driven drills. People who have no plan for responding to a crisis will default to doing little to nothing to save themselves. It is especially necessary that teachers learn lockdown protocols. Saugus High School students and staff demonstrated this fact when they responded to a threat on their campus with processes they had learned just two months before they were attacked. As a result of their implementation of training, only five innocent people were shot in a school with nearly 2500 students.
While what I am about to say next may seem counter intuitive, it is nonetheless true: we have less of a need for police-driven drills than for school-driven drills. According to the U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence, “No attacks were ended by outside law enforcement agencies responding to the scene from off campus (USSS, 12).” Responding officers usually arrive to locate the threat’s cooling corpse and process the crime scene. Still, there is a remote chance that police will arrive in time to stop a shooter in action, so keeping the training in place is worthwhile.
Contrary to what Andrew Yang and others may say, we don’t need to stop holding active shooter drills. Instead, schools need to hold school-driven lockdown drills separate from police-driven response drills. Doing so will provide a more useful experience for all parties while simultaneously avoiding the trauma associated with exposing school children to gunfire in their hallways.
We don’t have the luxury of deciding when a lunatic is going to attack a school. People who declare the sad state of affairs that requires students to hide in closets and prepare improvised weapons can’t protect kids with Utopian ideals about the way things ought to be. We must give schools the tools they need to respond to the possibility, however remote, that they will be the target of a shooter.
Doing anything less is just irresponsible.