Schools should heed calls to do lockdown drills without traumatizing kids instead of abolishing them

Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an advocacy group, has joined with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Educators Association, the nation’s two biggest teachers unions, to produce a report on lockdown drills in schools. The report calls for drastic changes in how these drills are conducted today. They say that drills shouldn’t be a surprise, involve realistic details or include kids.

These concerns reflect questions I consider in my research about the impact of lockdown drills: Is it possible to be prepared without being scared? And do kids need this training or just teachers and other school staff?

I agree with some of the teachers’ and Everytown’s concerns, but I don’t agree that kids shouldn’t participate in drills.

Lockdown drill excesses

There’s been no shortage of troubling headlines about lockdown drills and similar practices in recent years.

Teachers in Monticello, Indiana, in March 2019, were hurt when they got shot in the back with plastic pellets.

Students in Franklin, Ohio, were exposed to sounds of simulated gunfire.

Sometimes, role-playing kids and teens, covered in fake blood, are scattered throughout their schools – screaming.

Holding emergency drills

Today, more than 95% of public schools conduct lockdown drills. They became considerably more commonplace and focused on active attacker situations after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, in which 12 students and a teacher were murdered.

But U.S. schools have held emergency preparedness drills for decades.

In the 1950s, students practiced duck-and-cover drills to prepare for the atomic attacks Americans feared would occur during the Cold War.

Fire drills became commonplace in schools after 1958 – when a student at a Chicago parochial school started a fire in the building’s boiler room. The conflagration killed 93 students and two teachers.

Across the nation, students, faculty and staff participate in drills to prepare for earthquakes and tornadoes without hesitation or second thoughts. These practices have become routine.

So why is resistance to lockdown drills rising to the point where teachers and activists are calling for their abolition?

The importance of practicing

There are two key reasons why there is such an aversion to lockdown drills.

The first comes from a muddling of two things that are related but not the same: exercises and drills. Exercises incorporate realistic sights and sounds, such as the simulated screaming and bleeding that might occur during a mass shooting.

Drills, on the other hand, only require practice, such as evacuating a building or locking doors and getting as many people as possible out of sight.

Nobody sets schools on fire during fire drills to make them seem realistic. Instead, everyone practices how to respond so that it’s easier to do the right thing in frightening situations.

Exercises and drills are often talked about as if they are the same. But they are different, a point that often is lost in the call to end the practices associated with them because both are often perceived as traumatic.

Three studies

A second reason that lockdown drills are misunderstood is the lack of available research.

Anecdotes about the impact of lockdown drills are everywhere. Evidence, however, is scarce. To date, just three studies published in academic journals have examined the effects of a lockdown drill on students.

In 2007, psychologists Elizabeth Zhe and Amanda Nickerson found that when conducted in accordance with best practices, drills can increase awareness of how to respond to a situation without increasing anxiety or making people feel less safe.

Ten years later, researchers at Sam Houston State University, Misty Jo Dickson and Kristina Vargo, found similar results: With continued practice, kindergarten students were able to master most of the steps required during lockdown drills.

Most recently, Nickerson, Syracuse school safety leader Thomas Ristoff and I found that participation in training and accompanying lockdown drills makes students feel more prepared. Building confidence enhances the ability to do what’s needed during an emergency, our research indicates.

Consistent with the calls made in the report by Everytown and the teachers unions, I believe schools should use best practices when conducting lockdown drills. According to the National Association of School Psychologists and others, this doesn’t include simulation exercises that involve fake blood and screams.

Experts agree that participants should know that they’re experiencing a drill, rather than a real situation, to minimize the possibility of trauma. School administrators can schedule these exercises in advance so they aren’t completely unexpected. Mental health professionals should help with planning. And these exercises should be appropriate both for the ages involved and for special needs such as prior traumatic experiences.

Also, teachers and staff should always talk with students afterward to answer any questions they may have.

Although lockdown exercises have become more elaborate since 2007, lockdown drills have remained largely the same.

Defining objectives

Lockdown drills, like fire drills, should help people respond correctly in emergency situations by making them practice. Along with training, having clearly defined objectives is critical. Students must learn what to do and why.

Schools typically have three clearly defined goals during lockdown drills: lock doors, turn off lights and remain silent and out of view of anyone in the hallway.

In real life, situations that would result in a lockdown being called – such as an armed attacker on school grounds – usually end within minutes. Locking doors slows down assailants, giving first responders more time to stop them.

Turning lights off makes it harder for an attacker to find their targets, as does remaining out of sight and staying quiet.

Each emergency situation is different. Each has unique circumstances dictating the right response. This is why I believe that training is so important: It empowers students, teachers and others to make critical decisions in a crisis.

The nature of an active shooting means that adults can’t always make all of the decisions. In both the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings, teachers were killed, leaving rooms full of students vulnerable. Students must have the necessary skills to respond on their own. That’s why I consider calls to only train teachers and staff shortsighted.

Being prepared

Students and parents gathered a year after the Parkland mass shooting at a memorial event. mpi04/MediaPunch /IPX via AP

Although school shootings have become a matter of grave public concern, public schools remain among the safest places for children to be. Mass shootings at schools are rare. Yet they do occur.

I believe kids should be prepared, but also that drills don’t have to be scary to be effective. Schools can take steps to minimize the anxiety and trauma surrounding lockdown drills and still help students, rather than just their teachers, know how to respond.

While I don’t recommend exercises featuring plastic pellets and fake blood, the evidence available indicates that practicing what to do when an emergency arises is worthwhile.

This article incorporates material from an article published Nov. 22, 2019.

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