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New Report Finds That Unannounced Active Shooter Drills May Not Make Schools Safer

Phil Mislinski
Getty Images via NPR
Kindergarten students in Oahu, Hawaii, lie on the floor during a lockdown drill in 2003.

Unannounced Active Shooter drills in schools are scaring America's students without making them any safer. That's one of the conclusions found in a new report released by the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. The report recommends that schools refrain from conducting unannounced active shooter drills, as well as prohibit drills that simulate gun violence.

Rob Wilcox is Everytown's deputy director of Policy and Strategy. He spoke with Maine Public’s Ed Morin.

Wilcox: There's no doubt we need to do all that we can to keep our schools safe from gun violence. But the key is we need to do what works. And too often we're relying on untested and unproven tactics and programs that may actually be doing more harm than good. Staff in schools certainly need to be made aware of the procedures and protocols. If there's an emergency, they need to be ready to lock down a school at a moment's notice. But when it comes to preparing students, we have to be mindful of the impact that this could have on them, because the data and evidence is showing that extreme drills, unannounced drills are not doing anything to prepare students and are really causing more harm than good.

Morin: So what kind of harm are we talking about here?

Wilcox: So we're seeing a lot of experts, as well as anecdotes, that are reporting that we're seeing students who are suffering pretty significant trauma from lack of ability to pay attention in class, to nightmares, to nail-biting, to kind of constant fear and anxiety. I've seen examples where students will be suffering asthma attacks and other collateral consequences during the drill because they don't know that it is in fact, a drill.

Morin: Are you talking about not conducting any types of drills?

Wilcox: No, we're not recommending that schools don't do drills. In fact, we know that schools are. 95 percent of schools in this country are drilling students in one way or another. What we're saying is: drills need to be announced if you're going to have them, and they shouldn't mimic actual active shooter incidents. You need multi-disciplinary teams that are going to work on designing drills and make sure that the content is appropriate for the age of the students.

Morin: Your report does include recommendations for schools that do conduct drills about what should be done to help protect students well-being. What are they?

Wilcox: So we know that it's essential that you have the right content, and that means you need a multi-disciplinary team of not just law enforcement, but administrators, school psychologists, teachers and students ensuring that the right content is in place for the drill. You need to have a way so that students can decompress and find relief after a drill so that if they are experiencing trauma, there's an outlet. And schools need to make sure they're keeping track of the data to know if their drills are effective, or if they're causing harm so they can be adjusted. No one is saying we shouldn't be prepared. What we're saying is that we need to not do harm when we intend to do good.

Morin: And the report also indicates that there are probably other avenues that the schools, the community should be taking that might well, one would think, that might make the drills unnecessary in the first place, intervening before active shooting actually takes place.

Wilcox: We know that prevention is key. If you look at all of the data from school shootings, there's a few patterns that become clear. The shooters are students or former students. They nearly all have shown warning signs that have concerned others around them. And 76 percent have gotten guns from the home of their family or a close relative. We need the right type of tools to intervene and provide mental health services for students, a good school climate, and we need tools to make sure that students can't get their hands on guns -- secure gun storage, extreme risk protection orders and evidence-based threat assessment teams are all preventative solutions that will make our schools safer.

Update Feb. 24, 2020: According to the Maine Department of Education, a 2015 Maine Law requires schools to conduct lockdown drills as well as emergency evacuations, such as fire drills, throughout the school year.

Ed note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.