just asking questions

Are School Lockdown Drills Doing More Harm Than Good?

Photo: Phil Mislinski/Getty Images

For many parents, the flood of dread they felt when news broke of the Robb Elementary School shooting was accompanied by a question: Given the continued prevalence of school shootings, are the lockdown drills now commonplace in schools across America really necessary? MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, for example, tweeted on Wednesday, “I am more certain of this than I have ever been. Stop lockdown drills in all schools, immediately. It does nothing to protect kids. All it does is traumatize them, and in the worst case, plant the idea for some of them.”

That’s a mischaracterization, says school-safety expert Jaclyn Schildkraut, a SUNY Oswego criminal justice professor who has run 300 drills in Central New York over the past four years, and conducted the largest study to date on the effect such exercises have on students. She is also the author of Lockdown Drills: Connecting Research and Best Practices for School Administrators, Teachers, and Parents, which will be published in September. In an interview, she explains why she thinks a polarizing practice has helped students.

When did these mass-shooting drills start becoming commonplace in schools?
They became commonplace after Columbine. Prior to that shooting, nobody had procedures to keep people safe during these events. Many people who were effectively trapped inside Columbine High School as the two perpetrators had a full hour inside the school took precautions to get out of sight so the perpetrators couldn’t see them. And the commission that reviewed the shooting credited that procedure of locking down the school with saving so many lives that day.

After Columbine, we started to see a real proliferation of these practices. There wasn’t a real plan until after Sandy Hook. That was when the Run, Hide, Fight active-shooter protocol was introduced, which continued to diversify.

What is the Run, Hide, Fight protocol?
You first run and get yourself out of the location, then hide if you can’t get out of the building and find a safe place to go, and then fight if you’re face-to-face with the shooter and you have no other options.

A lot of schools picked that up, but the challenge is that it’s designed for open spaces. If you’re in a building, the safest place is behind a locked door, not out of a building. We don’t encourage students to run because they could go from a location that can be secured to one that can’t be. It shouldn’t be used in schools.

Has the training changed over the years as more shootings occurred?
Here’s the challenge. One of the things that we know after an event like this is that it becomes a consumer product market. A lot of companies come up with solutions, technologies, and plans and pitch them to schools. We see bulletproof backpacks, clear backpacks, panic buttons, you name it, and other things that emerge after events like Sandy Hook. There’s a lot of options and choices out there that companies build for profit. School security is a $3 billion industry.

When did you start studying school shootings?
I’ve been working on it since February 2018, when the shooting in Parkland, Florida, happened. When we started, the city of Syracuse really didn’t have a plan in place. Initial conversations with principals led us to identify the fact that over 30 different schools were doing something different. Even within one school district, there was no consistency. We came in and standardized everything across the district, and I was able to collect research.

What did you find?
In the first year, we did an initial survey of students grades six and higher. We asked them about perceptions of safety, how prepared they felt going into different situations, how they dealt with fear about an emergency happening. Then we did lockdown drills to understand what it looked like or how they were responding if there had been a situation.

After that first lockdown, we did a second survey but readministered it. If you compare the results from survey one to survey two, you can look at relationships within the drill. After we did that, we trained all the schools on a new protocol and we did another round of lockdown drills. Now that everyone had been trained properly, we did a final survey to see effects of continued lockdown drills.

Did you ever get any pushback from parents or staff?
No. Our state requires schools to do four drills [the state legislature passed this rule in 2016]. From their perspective, they were doing what they had to do.

How do you respond to concerns from some parents that these drills could traumatize students?
We incorporate best practices and guidance from the National Association of School Psychologists on how to mitigate and minimize trauma during lockdown drills. There are things you can do to help create a calmer environment. You can make sure you always call the practice as a drill. Make sure the teachers model calm behavior. Make time for debriefs so students can ask questions or talk about how they’re feeling. Prevent adverse reactions or counterbalance them.

The challenge is there is no national standard for how drills should be conducted. We’ve seen news stories of drills being done very poorly, for example, students being exposed to crisis actors covered in fake blood or being exposed to gunfire. None of those sensationalized techniques are necessary to achieve the desired outcome of a lockdown drill.

Lockdown drills are designed to build muscle memory. If you find yourself in a shooting or any type of emergency, if your thinking becomes compromised due to stress, your body responds in the way it is trained to do. You don’t light a school on fire to practice evacuations. When we come through and do our drills, we conduct them in a calm, low-stakes manner. We don’t have any of that added noise or simulation.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from students?
We get thumbs up, students telling us they’re okay. We work with students from pre-K all the way up to 12th grade, and the general tone I have observed is that they are taking this very seriously. They’re calm, and they ask good questions. I have not in four years been told that parents are upset or anyone had adverse reactions. We were in several schools the day after Oxford [the November 2021 mass shooting at a suburban Michigan high school]. While everyone was dealing with the heightened anxiety of that shooting, we still did what we needed to do and we were able to use that as a valuable learning opportunity.

When we surveyed students afterward, we found their anxiety is lower and their well-being is higher compared to before the drill. And we have found that students are not more fearful and don’t perceive that there’s a greater risk of shooting.

Were there any negative findings?
We did find that students felt more prepared but less safe afterward, and we attribute that idea to protection motivation theory. In order to engage in protective behavior, students have to think there is some type of a risk — otherwise, they won’t do anything. In other districts, students may say when a drill is announced, they go into a corner and hang out with their friends. But if they are taking the drill seriously, they will feel far more prepared to deal with whatever will come their way.

What do you say to parents who remain anxious and fearful after the Uvalde school shooting this week?
I wish we lived in a world where we don’t have to worry about having to respond to these situations. But we live in that world. Parkland has shown that. Sandy Hook has shown that. Now Uvalde has shown that. It’s important we prepare students to respond to all emergencies they face in that school. It is better to have a plan and not need it than need it and not have it. Until that time comes, we need to ensure we are preparing in a safe and empowering manner.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Are School Lockdown Drills Doing More Harm Than Good?