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How Active Shooter Drills Became a Big (and Possibly Traumatizing) Business
As kids prepare for the next mass shooting, experts say high-tech surveillance, tactical gear, and live drills are doing more harm than good
On August 3, just after 8 a.m., a gunman in a green hoodie, dark sunglasses, and a camouflage face mask quietly entered Boyle County High School, located outside Danville, Kentucky. He dropped a small explosive by a side door, entered the cafeteria, and began firing rounds from his shotgun.
Bodies piled up as he moved methodically through the hallways, squeezing the trigger, taking 10 steps, squeezing again. By the time local law enforcement shot and killed him, dozens of motionless bodies were strewn across the tile floor, their clothes soaked with blood.
Fortunately, none of the injuries were real. Not the bullets. Not the bomb. Boyle County High School was the site of an active shooter drill, one of many similar trainings held at schools across the country that aim to prepare teachers, students, and, in some cases, first responders for the worst.
The percentage of public schools running such drills, which include everything from extravagant Michael Bay–style productions to low-key lockdowns, was nearly 95 percent in 2015–2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And that was before 17 students were killed in February at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
Within months, Iowa, Florida, and South Carolina had all passed laws mandating such drills in schools, joining six other states that already had similar laws on the books. Business is booming for ALICE Training, the leader in active shooter defense instruction, which just opened a new headquarters in Ohio. For $589, the company puts individuals through two days of classes, then sends them back to their school or place of work to train everyone else. Its customers include some 4,000 K-12 schools and nearly 1,000 higher-education institutions, making it the biggest (but not the only) company providing the service.
The push to protect schools from mass shooters, and to make a buck off the hysteria around them, has also inspired a whole new array of tactical gear, from bulletproof whiteboards to safe rooms that are installed inside classrooms. Some schools are spending big to install gunshot-detection systems, line their hallways with cameras linked directly to the local police station, and hire social media monitoring firms. In July, a school safety conference held in Nevada drew more than 1,000 attendees, the most in a decade, along with a record 77 vendors hawking devices that incapacitate intruders, turn laptops into bulletproof shields, and allow a group of students to be locked down in their classroom for days. All the while, the Department of Education (DOE) is considering whether to arm teachers, and state lawmakers are prioritizing the so-called hardening of schools, even if they have to borrow the money or go into debt to do it.
As demand for such school safety measures soars, an important question remains unanswered: Do active shooter drills and beefed-up security measures make a difference? There’s little data to show they do and some evidence that they can make things worse. At Stoneman Douglas, for example, the shooter is said to have used his knowledge of the school’s lockdown procedures to rack up more casualties during his assault. The biggest concern for some experts, though, is that the vast majority of schoolchildren, whose classrooms will never come under attack, are left worse off after they’re made to seriously contemplate their deaths at the hands of a madman.
“We don’t teach them to go sit in a corner and wait to be passive and static.”
Active shooter drills “can be very traumatizing for students,” says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University and an outspoken critic of the trend. “Particularly if they are staged in a very realistic manner with fake blood and guns loaded with blanks, running around the school, chasing students. It’s a constant reminder that the bad guys are out to get them.”
If the data on the approach’s success is spotty and its effects potentially harmful, why then are active shooter drills becoming as common in schools as the morning pledge? Why are legislators increasingly providing for them at a time when teachers routinely spend hundreds of their own dollars to purchase supplies for their classrooms? And why are more holistic solutions, such as those addressing the mental health of the entire student population, not prioritized instead?
“Schools are in a difficult position,” Fox says. “They feel that they should do something.” Active shooter drills are a quick, understandable way to prepare for a school shooting, and law enforcement can conduct them in a couple hours on a Tuesday morning. The drills make people, particularly the lawmakers, administrators, and parents who don’t have to endure them, feel safe, even if they’re not making children much safer at all.
The active shooter drill is a legacy of Columbine. Prior to that tragedy, in which two classmates killed 13 students in suburban Colorado 19 years ago, kids hid under their desks during earthquake drills, crouched and covered their heads during tornado drills, and filed out to the football field during fire drills.
A decade after that horror, some schools had “turned themselves into near-fortresses,” as CNN put it, and lockdown drills had become routine in many districts. These procedures typically call for teachers to lock their doors, turn off the lights, and huddle students together in a corner, playing cards or reviewing multiplication tables until they’re given the all-clear.
Many schools still hold that kind of lockdown drill, but after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 children, six staff members, and himself, this new type of proactive training emerged, along with the new recommendation from the DOE. In place of previous advice that teachers and students shelter in place when under threat, now they were told to employ the three step-method summed up as “run, hide, fight.”
“You can run away from the shooter, seek a secure place where you can hide and/or deny the shooter access, or incapacitate the shooter to survive and protect others from harm,” read a DOE guide released six months after Sandy Hook.
Greg Crane, a former police officer in Texas, has advocated for an alternative to the shelter-in-place approach since 2001, when he founded ALICE Training. The company advocates a five-step procedure — alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate — to handle violent intruders.
School administrators could follow the lead of a superintendent in Pennsylvania, who equipped every classroom in his district with a five-gallon bucket of rocks to throw at potential intruders.
The lockdown method is too restrictive, Crane says. “I wanted a more options-based program and a more proactive program. We don’t teach them to go sit in a corner and wait to be passive and static.”
Instead, teachers and students are now encouraged to get away from the bad guy if possible and fight back if necessary. ALICE Training teaches students to barricade their classroom doors with a tower of desks, chairs, and cabinets. In the event that they come face-to-face with a shooter, kids are taught to throw things at him. A children’s book published by the company includes a few recommendations: “A shoe from a cubby, a block of wood, or maybe a TV remote. A paperback book, a video game, or even a plastic goat.” Or school administrators could follow the lead of a superintendent in Pennsylvania, who equipped every classroom in his district with a five-gallon bucket of rocks to throw at potential intruders.
“It’s not easy to shoot somebody and hit them,” says Crane, adding that anything that can be done to distract a shooter could result in fewer casualties.
Crane believes reinforcing these strategies requires training with a hint of realism. He’s critical of the drills that look like 1980s-era action movies but says ALICE Training tries to “make it as real as possible without using fear as a motivator.”
“What some call fear, I’m calling maybe a little bit of an adrenaline rush,” Crane elaborates. “We do try to have people experience the adrenaline rush. That’s the whole point of reality training—to get people to understand what they might face.”
Katherine Cowan, communications director for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), says there’s no evidence that making people feel afraid “actually gets them to behave more successful in a frightening experience.” There are, however, concrete risks to such a strategy. “The challenge with trying to simulate a frightening experience is you don’t know what the risk factors are for the people involved,” Cowan points out. “If you have someone who has an anxiety around these things, to trigger them unnecessarily could cause real harm.”
Simulation-style drills were designed to train law enforcement officers, Cowan says, but “after Newtown, it got expanded to training the whole school community this way. That’s where it started to off the rails.” According to a report from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, these drills “foster fear and anxiety” and “can intensify the fear of gun violence children already suffer and train them to persistently worry about their own safety.”
Rather than scaring kids by outfitting their chemistry teacher with a ski mask and setting him loose with an unloaded airsoft gun, the NASP says administrators should stick to lockdown drills, which Cowan calls the “gold standard” of securing schools. She acknowledges that lockdowns might not always be the best option for staying safe. Other approaches, such as fleeing and attacking, should be be discussed, she says, but not practiced. “They don’t fill the airplane with smoke and have it drop 10,00 feet in order to show people why it’s important to put on a mask,” Cowan says.
“Live training with fake weapons is only useful to tactical teams,” says Aric Mutchnik, CEO of global security firm Experior Group. He’s created a new type of active shooter drill that employs little red balls in the place of fake assault rifles. “You have a role-player who comes into the office and pulls the ball out of a bag,” Mutchnick explains. “The front-office secretary sees it and says, ‘Oh, no! The red ball. Am I dead?’”
From there, a conversation begins. If the secretary says she would push her panic button upon encountering an intruder, Mutchnick might have her push it right then. “A lot of times, they’re afraid to press the button. They think if they press it, it’s going to wake up the president. Getting them comfortable with that button is critical,” he says.
Mutchnick’s business in schools is modest at the moment, thanks to entrenched bureaucracy and a deference to law enforcement, he says. But a growing backlash against active shooter drills could change that. Parents, such as the one who launched a petition to stop a drill from including a noise “similar to that of gunfire, but created by clapping two pieces of wood together,” have complained about the hyperrealism. Teachers have sued after suffering hearing loss from blanks fired during drills. And administrators have been formally reprimanded for springing active shooter drills on teachers and students without warning.
“They thought someone was in their school attacking them,” April Sullivan, whose daughter’s middle school held a surprise active shooter drill in May, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “My daughter was traumatized. She literally thought she was going to die.”
Some administrators responsible for these drills go to such great lengths to replicate the horror of an actual shooting that it’s hard to imagine they’re not having a little fun with it.
Ronak Shah, a middle school teacher in Indianapolis, recalled participating in one staff-only training in which a man burst into the school wearing a bloody hockey mask and carrying a fake assault rifle. A first-year teacher, who was forced into the demonstration, struggled to respond and was berated by officers. “It was dumb and pointless,” Shah says.
Last February, at a White House event focusing on school safety issues, the anti-drill movement found an unlikely ally. President Donald Trump, whose youngest son Barron is 12, said they’re “bad for children.”
“Active shooter drills is a very negative thing, I’ll be honest with you,” Trump said. “I think that’s a very negative thing to be talking about. I don’t like it. I don’t want to tell my son, ‘You’re going to have to participate in an active shooter drill.’ I’d much rather have a hardened school.”
The White House later attempted to clarify that Trump thinks there’s a problem with the name “active shooter drill,” but it was clear from his comment that the president favors an approach aimed not at preparing students but protecting schools. It’s a position the White House would later endorse with the STOP School Violence Act of 2018, which allocated $25 million a year to physical security improvements in schools. The Senate hasn’t taken up the bill.
State governments responded more aggressively to Parkland than Washington, DC, did. In the aftermath of the shooting, several states considered raising the gun-buying age to 21, and Florida actually did, drawing a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association. Governor Rick Scott and several of his counterparts around the nation also signed “red flag” laws, which are meant to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. But the appetite for these measures, both of which could have put up roadblocks for the Parkland shooter, did not match that for legislation addressing school safety. In the two months following the shooting in Florida, more than 100 bills on the subject were introduced in 27 states.
Experts consider that response disproportionate to the threat. “We over-obsess about school shootings,” says Fox, the Northeastern criminologist, noting that such incidents are exceedingly uncommon. “Surveys show the majority of students are afraid there will be a mass shooting at their school. These are rare events — scary though they may be, tragic though they may — and we shouldn’t over respond.”
“What some call fear, I’m calling maybe a little bit of an adrenaline rush.”
But some school districts are, understandably, less concerned with statistics than with protecting children from a potentially tragic event. A school in Oklahoma has installed bulletproof shelters in its classrooms. A North Carolina charter school paid $400,000 for a gunshot-detection system that constantly monitors the campus for the distinct sound and muzzle flash produced by a fired gun. At Southwestern High School in Shelbyville, Indiana, every teacher wears a panic button that, when activated, puts the entire school on lockdown and notifies law enforcement. Police have cameras set up throughout the school, allowing them to track an intruder the moment they’re alerted to his presence.
Not all innovations in the school safety market are quite so Orwellian. The Nightlock barricading system, at $60 per door, “provides protection in just seconds for emergency lockdown situations,” while the LifeLite, a laser-sighted, pepper spray–launching flashlight, runs $200 per unit. Both products were among the many pitched at this year’s National School Safety Conference in Reno.
“It’s disturbing but rewarding,” Georg Olsen of U.S. Armor told Vox.com. He was pitching Door Shield, a $2,000 bullet-resistant mat that, with the tug of a strap, unfurls to cover a classroom door. It’s one of the many products bringing bulletproof technology to the classroom, along with bulletproof whiteboards, bulletproof tablet cases, and bulletproof backpack inserts.
Of course, at a time when teachers are striking over stagnant wages and decreased education funding, such products strike some as a misallocation of precious resources. “I know a school that, with pressure from parents, installed a very expensive camera surveillance system,” Fox says. “But they didn’t have money to pay anybody to sit there and watch the video.”
Instead of pumping money into bulletproof desk calendars, experts say schools would be better off consulting threat-assessment models that call for identifying in-school threats and developing a plan for intervention. They also advocate hiring more counselors: At the current rate of one counselor per 482 students, the American School Counselor Association says the number of mental health professionals in public schools needs to be doubled.
“It feels simple to put in metal detectors or to conduct one of these drills,” Cowan says, “but is the cost over time really going toward improving the lives and safety of kids and staff? Schools should be more worried about providing mental health services because of the day-to-day suffering of kids.”
Research consistently shows that focusing on school climate, or the “the quality and character of school life,” creates safer schools. Efforts to deepen relationships between students and teachers help everyone feel safer, and schools where students feel safe are schools where students are less likely to engage in risky behavior and create trouble in general. These changes require shifts in school culture and a bigger investment than outfitting rooms with new locks. It’s little wonder that cash-strapped districts are seeking quick fixes that promise to mitigate the damage a shooter does rather than preventing kids from becoming violent in the first place.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that more school psychologists, social workers, and opportunities for teacher-student bonding will stop speeding bullets or distract a gunman, Fox admits. “But in the process of trying, we could enhance the well-being of a lot of kids.”