It’s been a hell of a week for this country. I hope you all are hanging in there.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what you can do to keep your kids safe from gun violence, but the elephant in the room that I didn’t address was lockdown drills. Lockdown drills are something I’ve long wanted to investigate. My assumption has been that they are useless and bad — that they unnecessarily traumatize children and don’t actually teach students anything useful. I’ve seen many scary articles about them, like this one in The New York Times that claims that such drills “harm the mental health of students, while doing little to prevent mass shootings.” And this piece in Salon, which concludes that lockdown drills cause “stress, anxiety, fear and trauma.” And this one in The Atlantic with the headline “Active-Shooter Drills Are Tragically Misguided.”
But I’ve wondered: Is there any actual science on these drills, and what does it say? So I started digging. As it turns out, there’s not a ton. There should be more. But there’s some, and it’s illuminating. I also called up one of the few researchers who has spent years studying the impact of lockdown drills — Jaclyn Schildkraut, a criminal justice researcher at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego, who is also the interim executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium.
I’m going to do my best here to unpack, as simply and straightforwardly as possible, what I learned about the science on lockdown drills, and what this means for your kids. The issue is complex and nuanced — far more so than the headlines suggest. I discovered, for instance, that people often use the term “lockdown drill” when they mean something different; that some drills are undoubtedly dangerous while others might actually be helpful; and that there are key questions parents can ask of their school administrators to understand whether students are being drilled appropriately or not. Here are the key takeaways.
1. A “lockdown drill” is not the same thing as an “active shooter drill.”
If you read about school drills, you’ll notice that people often use the phrase “lockdown drill” and “active shooter drill” interchangeably. But they aren’t the same thing. As Dr. Schildkraut explained to me, the term “active shooter drill” doesn’t mean anything specific. It’s a term people throw around that doesn’t have a particular definition and can mean many different things. Some schools that say they run “active shooter drills” could be doing inappropriate, trauma-inducing things, like the school in Indiana that was criticized for shooting teachers with pellets execution-style, the school in Florida that apparently alerted parents to an active-shooter situation in what was actually just a drill, and the Ohio school that shot at kids with blanks. There’s been no research on the impacts of these kinds of drills specifically, but there’s little doubt, from a child development perspective, that these simulated exercises aren’t useful. Unfortunately, nobody knows how common these kinds of drills are, but the assumption — and hope — is that they’re fairly rare, or we’d be hearing about them more often.
Other options-based approaches, like “Run, Hide, Fight” and the ALICE protocol, have also not been studied much (and Dr. Schildkraut worries that Run, Hide Fight in particular is not a developmentally appropriate approach for kids). It’s worth noting that many of these specialized approaches can cost schools a lot of money to implement, and that they are marketed by stoking fear. “If you look at the school safety market now, it's like $3 billion a year with continual projected growth of 2 percent year over year,” Dr. Schildkraut told me, and companies are thrilled to fill the niche with ridiculous products — bulletproof backpacks, bulletproof whiteboards, etc.
A traditional lockdown drill, on the other hand, is quite common — 95 percent of schools use them — and this kind of drill is not specifically about protecting kids from school shooters. Lockdowns are used anytime there are potential threats inside the building (angry parents, angry students, wild animals), and the drills help kids prepare for and practice a strategy that will maintain distance between themselves and that threat.
Lockdown drills, when done appropriately, do not encompass the scary things you may have heard about. “When you do a lockdown, you're performing certain steps: You get your doors locked, get your lights off, get out of sight, meaning you can't be seen or heard from the hallway window, you make sure that you don't open the door for anybody,” and you stay quiet, Dr. Schildkraut explained. In a traditional lockdown drill that is done correctly, nobody is running around masked, pretending to be a school shooter. Nobody is trying to break into classrooms. Most likely, nobody is using the word “shooter” or talking about guns at all.
“I've run, to date, more than 100 [lockdown] training sessions with children. And I've never once told them it was for a shooter,” Dr. Schildkraut told me. When she runs lockdown drills, she explains to students that lockdowns can happen when there’s someone in school acting a bit silly, or when an animal accidentally gets into the building. I know: You probably assume your kids know that lockdown drills are about school shooters. But when I told my 11-year-old about the Uvalde massacre right after it happened, and he wanted to know what his school was doing to keep him safe, I mentioned his school’s lockdown drills and he went white and said: “Wait. That’s what lockdown drills are for?” He had no idea. (And I’m pretty sad that I’m the one who connected those dots for him, oof.)
My point here is that if you’ve heard that your child’s school conducts lockdown drills, that doesn’t mean the kids are suffering through the terrifying simulation exercises you may have read about. I mean, yes, it’s possible they are: We don’t have good data on which and how many schools are doing them, Dr. Schildkraut said, but traditional lockdown drills are likely to be far more common. And your child may have no idea that lockdowns have to do with school shootings. The implications and rationale are clear and terrifying to us — but not necessarily to our kids.
2. Lockdowns can actually make a difference.
I’ve heard people say things like “a shooter doesn’t care about a locked door,” but Dr. Schildkraut told me that, in fact, locked doors have saved a lot of lives in school shootings. Lockdown drills became popular after the 1999 Columbine massacre, in large part because the school went into lockdown during the shooting, and that lockdown is credited with saving a lot of lives. In the aftermath of Columbine, Colorado Governor Bill Owens commissioned a report to understand what happened that day, and the report explains that the Columbine shooters never entered a locked room or killed anyone who was in one. (I’m not trying to downplay what happened — obviously, many students were murdered that day, and it was awful, but the point is, it could have been worse.)
Since then, Dr. Schildkraut explained, there have only been four school shootings in which shooters have killed students who were behind locked or barricaded doors, and in none of these situations did the shooters actually get past the locked door to shoot people. In a shooting in 2005, as well as during the 2018 Parkland massacre, shooters shot through windows and killed students because they couldn’t get out of sight; in a school shooting in 2006 and during the Uvalde shooting, the shooters were barricaded in rooms with students they shot.
In other words, we know from past shootings that locked doors can keep students safe, especially when the students are also able to stay out of sight. This all said, we don’t have good data on whether lockdown drills save lives. But this is really, really hard to study: You would have to somehow compare outcomes in schools that had and had not conducted lockdown drills when those schools experienced school shootings (which are extremely rare). But research suggests that lockdown drills do help students learn correct lockdown procedures and implement them properly, so that’s something to keep in mind.
3. Research suggests lockdown drills, when done appropriately, aren’t traumatizing.
When you look at the research on school drills, you once again have to be careful to not confuse “active shooter drills” with “lockdown drills,” because research sometimes conflates these terms. As an example: In a highly-covered 2021 study commissioned by Everytown For Gun Safety, researchers analyzed social media messages that had been posted by people who seemed affiliated with schools, or lived near schools, before and after those schools conducted what they called “active shooter drills.” (These social media posts could include posts by teachers and parents and people who lived nearby, not just students.) They compared these posts with posts made over a similar time period by people who weren’t affiliated with those school communities. They found that the posts from people affiliated with the “active shooter drill” school communities included language that suggested those people were experiencing more stress, anxiety, and depression after the drills than they did before the drills. The paper concludes that, based on those results, active shooter drills “negatively impact the psychological well-being of entire school communities.” But it’s unclear what kinds of drills the students experienced — the study notes that “our survey did not collect information about the type nor implementation of the school shooter drill” — and it’s also hard to make clear conclusions about mental health based on the kinds of words found in social media messages. It’s even more of a stretch to conclude that the drills that took place in those schools caused these changes in mental health over time, when lots of other things could have been happening, too.
In a series of recent studies, Dr. Schildkraut and her colleagues have tried to dig into the impacts of traditional lockdown drills more specifically. In their latest study, published in April 2022, they surveyed more than 10,000 middle and high school students in an urban New York school district before they experienced lockdown drills, after their first lockdown drill, and after a second lockdown drill (which had been conducted after the students and teachers and received more training on the drills). They found that the students reported feeling less fearful, and perceived less risk, after experiencing the training and second lockdown drill than they had before the first drill. They did, however, find that students were more likely to engage in “avoidance behaviors,” like skipping school, after they’d experienced the second drill, and it’s unclear why; this is something she’s studying further. (Dr. Schildkraut pointed out research has shown that students tend to feel less safe later in the school year than early in the school year, for some reason.) In another study of rural high school students, Dr. Schildkraut and her colleagues found that students felt less anxious and reported higher well-being after lockdown drills than before them. She has also found that lockdown drills make students and teachers feel more prepared.
Clearly, we need more research to tease out what’s happening here. But the science we have does not all point in the same direction — and there are some studies suggesting that traditional lockdown drills, when done appropriately, may not be as traumatizing as some headlines have led us to believe, and could actually be empowering.
4. What is key is that school drills are trauma-informed.
After reading all the research, I couldn’t help but wonder what kinds of drills my children’s school uses. I asked Dr. Schildkraut: What’s the best question to ask of school administrators to understand more about the drills they do? You can certainly ask whether the drills are “traditional lockdown drills,” as the research suggests those may be the most helpful and least traumatizing, but Dr. Schildkraut warned me that because the labels are not always used correctly (and how schools conduct the drills matters more than what they’re called), it’s better to ask whether the drills are “trauma-informed,” and to perhaps even ask more specific questions about how the drills are done.
As it turns out, The National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers, and Safe and Sound Schools have partnered to provide guidance on best practices for school crisis drills. Here are some of the key things they recommend (and you can ask your schools if they are doing these things and/or point them to the guidance):
Research supports the effectiveness of nonsensorial lockdown drills (i.e., drills done by calmly walking and talking through the procedures, with no simulation of a real-life event).
Simple discussion-based exercises should take place before complex operations-based drills.
All participants should know ahead of time that the drill will take place and what to expect, including what announcement will be made or what bell will sound to start the drill.
Effective drills include the presence of staff who inspire calm and confidence in students.
Participation should never be mandatory, parental consent should always be obtained, and alternative methods to teach skills should be provided.
Schools should consider factors such as developmental maturity, psychological history, prior traumatic experiences, personality, and special needs of participants.
School-employed mental health professionals should be involved in every stage of preparation. Prior to the drill, staff should be trained to recognize common trauma reactions. During the drill, adults should monitor participants and remove anyone exhibiting signs of trauma. After completion of the drill, staff and students should have access to mental health support.
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So interesting to read this. My four year old had a lockdown drill two weeks ago, and I was freaking out. She was so excited to tell me about it.
"Today we got to practice being quiet and hiding. Somebody went to another classroom and asked if Orange Bees were there, but they said no and we all were very quiet to trick them so they didn't think we were there."
She was so proud they could "trick" the person into not thinking they were there. We left it at that and said I was really proud of her class for being good tricksters. It's such a difficult world to navigate sometimes.
It's fascinating (in a sad way) that this thing that's touted by many school districts actually hasn't been studied that thoroughly. I roundabout asked my 9-year-old about the purpose of lockdown drills, and he also hadn't connected it to school shooters.
I remember when my daughter was in a special day class preschool at a local elementary school (her classroom was for kids with verbal difficulties, including kids with autism) her teacher pulled each parent aside and let them know about the upcoming lockdown drill and strongly advised some parents to keep their kids home that day. Their solution for most of the SDC kids was to bring them into a room with no outdoor access and have them watch a video. I hate how much of this responsibility is being put on teachers.