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Why Active Shooter Drills May Be a Bad Idea

Evidence shows active shooter drills may do more harm than good for children.

Key points

  • Mass shootings in school are on the rise, but represent a small percentage of all shootings.
  • Active shooter drills in school may do more harm than good, as they raise children's anxiety about school.
  • There are better and less-intrusive ways to protect children.

From January to June 2022, there were 95 incidents of gunfire on school grounds that killed 40 and injured 76. In 2021, more than 200 incidents of gunfire resulted in 49 people dead on school grounds. Between 1996 and 2019, nearly 200 students and 30 school staff have been killed by gunfire in and around schools.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2020, for the first time, the leading cause of death amongst children 1 to 19 years old was firearms.

Because school shootings are big news stories, it is easy to attribute this horrific statistic to mass shootings at schools. In fact, dying at school from firearms is statistically very small. One estimate is that the odds are 1 in 600 million.

Mass shootings in schools and elsewhere—malls, clubs, parades, supermarkets, and hospitals—have spiked overall. There have been more mass shootings in the past five years than in any other half- decade going back to 1966. Still, 95 percent of gun homicides involve three or fewer victims.

Mass school shootings register in the public’s consciousness as uniquely unsettling. They create so much anxiety because children are the targets. Unlike other shootings that also kill children, such as suicide, gang violence, targeted shootings or accidental death by guns, and shootings in other public spaces, mass shootings in schools involve multiple and random killings where children are the intended victims.

In response, between 2015 and 2016, 95 percent of public schools held active shooter drills where schools lock down and students are confined to a space. Many states now mandate such drills.

But questions have been raised about whether they are effective in keeping people safe during a school shooting and whether subjecting children to drills might actually do more harm than good.

By way of analogy, I think about learning how to react to live fire when I was in the army. As part of basic training, there were days upon days of instruction on how to react in a combat situation. However, the first time we moved from instruction to simulation we panicked and ran in all directions. The second simulation went better. Some schools have opted for such simulations to prepare students for the real thing. But as my military training demonstrated, it isn’t so simple.

Children, teachers, administrators, and custodial staff aren’t soldiers. They don’t come prepared for combat, but to learn and teach. Rather than providing a sense of security, school drills cause emotional distress. One study concluded that after an active shooter drill, 60 percent of the students surveyed felt “unsafe, scared, helpless, or sad as a result.”

A further consideration regarding active shooter drills comes from a report on the Uvalde shooting. Lockdowns were so common in the school that there was a diminished sense of urgency.

There are less-intrusive safety steps that can be taken. In Nassau County, where I live, the Police Commissioner stresses that most shootings are over in two or three minutes. Therefore, it is essential to slow down the potential shooter. Obstacles put in the way of quick access are key: locked doors; a two-step entry into the school, first the main door, then a security vestibule. Schools should be equipped with button alert systems that bypass 911, and all personnel should know where the buttons are located. School blueprints should be on file at each precinct and precinct cops should be familiar with school building layouts, so they know where to go in case of a real situation. There need to be regular visits to schools by cops to do checks of physical security to ensure that doors lock from the inside. School personnel should ensure that doors remain closed. Teachers ought to be aware of where in the classroom they can hide without being seen through a window. And all teachers and administrators need to be instructed annually regarding the best, up-to-date advice on what to do in case of such an emergency.

Far better to have these safety measures in place than making schools a place of high anxiety, a frightening place to be. Everyone will be safer if schools take prudent but not excessive precautions to prevent active shootings.

Reducing the number and types of guns easily accessible is part of the picture regarding safety in schools and elsewhere. But that is another subject that is extremely difficult to address. The steps outlined above are relatively easy and not especially costly to implement. And these steps should be taken quickly if we want to prevent future school tragedies.