“Today, your child’s school will have an active shooter drill.” This seemingly simple sentence has become a source of contentious debate across the United States in recent years. Despite the rarity of mass shootings occurring at school, approximately two-thirds of parents of teenagers express worry about a school shooting, according to Pew Research. This worry has manifested into fierce demands that schools “do something,” and school administrators and security leaders have responded by implementing a wide range of security measures including, but not limited to, tightening access control, installing security cameras, and employing of school resource officers. However, schools have most often developed and introduced lockdown drills, with 96% of schools utilizing drills during the 2017-2018 academic year.
However, one fundamental question remains: What is a drill?
We argue “drill” is a loaded word in today’s vernacular leading to much confusion, as well as a lack of constructive dialogue about what exactly schools are teaching students to do to stay safe in the unimaginable. While there are best practice considerations for active shooter drills for students as well as a recently launched School Safety Clearinghouse, there is no national standard dictating either the content or the implementation of active shooter drills with the PreK-12 population.
Without this national standard, what is considered active shooter training in schools can vastly differ. For example, in one school, a single-option response may be taught instructing students to lock the door, turn off the classroom lights, and hide in a corner least visible to the assailant. Another school may teach a dual-option response, which adds the option of evacuating if students are not able to hide in a locked, darkened room. And, yet, in another school, a multi-option response may be adopted teaching students three options to choose from in an active assailant situation: running away from the building, locking and barricading the door, and actively resisting by throwing items or physically attacking if face-to-face with the assailant.
Beyond the content of single-, dual-, or multi-option responses, the manner in which students learn about what to do in an active assailant incident also varies drastically. One school may simply talk to their students about how to respond. In another school, students engage in announced drills where they practice the content learned. Additionally, in some schools, functional or full-scale exercises are conducted simulating gunfire and using actors to role-play victims.
Contrast this to fire drills. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has clear requirements for fire safety in educational settings, including strict guidelines for the training of students. Therefore, it does not matter if a child goes to school in Ohio or Washington, fire safety instruction will be similar. Across the country, it is mandated that all individuals in the school participate in a set number of drills involving evacuating the building and relocating to another area. Additionally, the NFPA provides age-appropriate resources, often using the kid-friendly Sparky the Fire Dog, to teach children about smoke alarms, getting low to the ground and under the smoke, and most famously the three actions to do if one is on fire: Stop, Drop, and Roll. Consequently, when parents are informed their child will be taught about fire safety at school, there is a clear understanding of what their child will learn and be expected to do.
The lack of a national standard for active assailant training muddles the conversation about the impact these trainings have on our students, teachers and staff. We argue there are two reasons why a national standard has not yet been developed. First, there is very limited empirical research assessing the ability of active assailant trainings to mitigate causalities and their resulting psychological impact. Much of this research is published as white papers or by organizations and has not undergone the rigorous peer-review process. Additionally, this research does not take into account the various types and implementations of active assailant protocols. This type of research is difficult to conduct as there: is limited funding for gun violence research; often involves placing participants in simulations; and requires partnerships with PreK-12 practitioners, academics and parents.
Second, and more difficult to overcome, the dialogue around active assailant training is often clouded by individuals and organizations who have personal, professional and/or financial interests in a particular active assailant protocol, which can make an unbiased examination of the limited data difficult. Rather than seeing this as an issue that science can inform, the conversation around drills is susceptible to knowledge destruction techniques, where ideological concerns seem to trump a rational, empirically-driven approach to the issue.
Obtaining empirical evidence about how to both keep and have children, teachers and staff feel safe at school is one of the most salient charges school security leaders have in this country. The issue is complex and needs an evidence-based approach toward active assailant trainings. However, before the industry can achieve that goal, we must use the proper semantics so what we are trying to examine is clearly articulated.
By grouping all “drills” together, we run the risk of not truly understanding the differential impacts of various active assailant protocols, and we could miss opportunities to prepare and empower the more than 66 million students, teachers and staff learning and working in schools each day.