School nurses, teachers question wisdom of active shooter drills.


Article Content

At least 147 children, educators, and others have been killed, and another 130 injured, in school shootings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. In 2019 alone, there were 25 shooting incidents on K-12 school property, resulting in eight deaths and 43 injuries.

Figure. Students and... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Students and members of the Fountain Police Department take part in an active shooter response training exercise at Fountain Middle School in Fountain, Colorado. Photo by Dougal Brownlie / The Gazette via AP.

While alarming, such events account for only 1% of homicides among school-age youths. Still, 95% of schools now engage in active shooter drills, which range from lockdowns to a model known as "run, hide, fight"-a hyperrealistic training that requires participants, including children, to defend themselves against masked actors amid simulated sounds of gunshots. Funded in large part by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, active shooter drills have created a $2.7 billion industry. The leading provider of such training is ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate), a company whose programs mirror those of the FBI and the U.S. Armed Forces.


Amid rising concern about possible harmful physical and psychological effects on schoolchildren, two unions-the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association-along with the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, released a cautionary report. "While there is almost no research affirming the value of these drills," the report states, "stories abound in the media of incidents where students, educators, and staff have experienced distress and sometimes lasting trauma as a result of active shooter drills." The organizations recommend trauma-informed training for school staff (but not students), including drills on lockout, evacuation, and emergency medical procedures.


Robin Cogan, MEd, RN, NCSN, legislative chair for the New Jersey State School Nurses Association and coauthor of a study in Current Trauma Reports on gun violence in schools, concurs. "There is finally a realization that we need evidence," Cogan told AJN. "We don't know what the effects of these drills are, especially on children with special needs, or those with a history of violence." Having for years worked to increase awareness of gun violence and the potential consequences of school shooter drills, Cogan brings personal history to her advocacy for better policy and research: in 1949 her father, then age 12, survived a shooting in Camden, New Jersey, that killed 13 people, including his parents and grandmother. And, in 2018, her niece survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.


"Gun violence is a public health epidemic," not simply a law enforcement issue, Cogan said, calling for a standardized response protocol-as developed for fire drills-as well as action to address the root causes of violence. "Access to weapons is incredibly easy, and shooters are often kids with behavioral problems who leave clues, on social media or elsewhere," she said. "We don't have the safety net to catch these kids." The solution, she believes, lies in everyone working together to become responsive rather than reactive. "Children's safety is a shared value, we can't just harden a school," Cogan said, noting the militaristic language of current active shooter drills such as "threat assessment" when referring to a potential shooter. "Why are we calling a kid a 'threat'?" Cogan asked. "And why are bulletproof backpacks a regular part of back-to-school shopping? That is absolutely crazy."


Such challenges to current practice in schools are gaining traction. In February, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California asked the principal of San Marino High School to cancel a drill during which police officers were to fire blank cartridges for 11 minutes to teach students to recognize gunfire. Persuaded by the ACLU that the gunfire could have a traumatizing effect, the school cancelled the drill.-Dalia Sofer


Everytown Research. New York, NY; 2020 Feb 11. https://everytownresearch.org/school-safety-drills; Cogan R, et al. Curr Trauma Rep 2019;5(4):178-86.