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Active shooter drills: Do risks outweigh benefits?
School policies for gun violence are a band-aid for a bullet hole. We need to prevent gun violence upstream. Prevent it from even being a conversation. But, this is where we find ourselves as parents today. So, here we go.
Parents, including myself, are yearning to do something to make schools safer given after yet another mass school shooting sent ripple effects across the U.S. Incidents of gunfire at schools, mass shootings and beyond, are increasing.
But we need to be smart with what actions we implement and why. Like with any public health policy, the population-level benefits need to outweigh the risks. And with active school shooter drills, this may not be the case.
Active shooter drills
Active shooter drills have become a hallmark of American schools and a by-product of gun violence in the U.S. Lockdown drills started in 1999 after Columbine and are now implemented in approximately 95% of schools nationwide.
We don’t know if they work
We do not know whether active shooter drills prevent active shooters from engaging at schools. We also don’t know whether they reduce injury and mortality.
Our poor understanding is for two main reasons:
Rarity of event. Compared to other countries, school shootings in the U.S. are not a rare event. But among “bad things that can happen to kids in the U.S.,” mass school shootings are considered rare. A recent commentary estimated: “the risk of a student dying in a school shooting on any given day is approximately 1 in 614 million.” Although firearms are the leading cause of death in children, this is because of homicide and suicides, rather than mass shootings. This makes mass school shootings hard to study with precision.
Wide variety of programs. Active shooter drills vary. Some ask students to stay quiet and turn off the lights while others simulate gunfire and hire actors. There is no “standard” to measure. And there is no database or tracking system to know who does what.
We can’t conduct randomized controlled trials. Instead, we need to innovatively leverage proxy data—student surveys, interviews, and social media patterns. And, we have some of this data. This is what it’s telling us.
Active shooter drills have some benefits but also risks
Emergency preparedness increases.
Kindergarteners are more likely to follow instructions and stay quiet after implementing active shooting drills at schools.
Another study found kids showed “mastery” in locking doors (89%), turning lights off (85%), and not responding to door knocks (91%) after training and drills. (Although kids did need to do better at “staying out of sight” [71%]).
One small study compared elementary students who were in school shooting drills (cases) compared to non-shooting drills (controls). Immediately following the shooter drill, student knowledge increased and perceived safety or anxiety did not change.
Fear and inflated perceptions.
A large study found active shooter drills in high school increased fear, inflated perceptions of risk, and decreased perceptions of school safety. These feelings lasted for years—through college.
Other research found students felt significantly less safe at school or in various parts of the building after school shooting drills.
Mental health. In 2021, scientists conducted a huge study—including data from over 54 million social media posts on Twitter and Reddit—to determine if mental health changed after active shooter drills. They found:
Sharp increases in stress, anxiety (42% increase), depression (39% increase), and fears about death (22%) following school shooting drills
Change regardless of grade. High school students, though, experienced the greatest negative impact.
Symptoms remained elevated over time—at least 90 days after a drill.
Shooter knows plans. 91% of school shooters were current or former students. This means the shooter will know the plan and can use it to their advantage.
So a short-term benefit includes emergency preparedness. But is this worth the potential long-term impacts? The evidence on both sides is weak.
And policy isn’t driven just by statistics. School mass shootings feel like a huge threat. They certainly send shock waves. As Dr. Andrea Betts (YLE copy editor, public health researcher, and mom) nicely said:
The thought of my kid being in an active shooter drill makes me ill. But, of course, the thought of him being in an active shooter *situation* is truly intolerable. I think, as parents, we all feel this threat is very real.
Could active shooter drills have helped in Nashville? Absolutely. (I’m not going to pretend I know the details.) At the same time, in 130,000+ schools across the U.S., children’s mental health and perception of safety at schools are being eroded.
We have other options
Active school shooter drills are not our only option. We have proven school safety strategies beyond school shooting drills. Everytown outlines specific steps we can take to keep schools safe without active shooter drills, including:
Creating evidence-based threat assessment programs in schools. Schools can implement the Comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG). This trains a multidisciplinary team to identify early warning signs and get troubled kids the help they need before problems manifest in something extreme.
Implement expert-endorsed school security upgrades. Access measures—fencing, single access point, and having doors that lock—can help. However, there is a careful balance between safety and maintaining a welcoming school environment.
Establish emergency planning and preparation. Knowing what to do when is critical for emergencies. However, keep students out of mass shooting plans—just loop in teachers and staff. If a school does have drills, schools should absolutely follow the National Association of School Psychologists recommendations: do not include simulations that mimic an active shooter, clearly announce drills, and provide sufficient information to parents.
Our historic response to gun violence is to implement active-shooter drills in schools. But they are not based on strong evidence, and there’s a possibility of doing more harm than good. We need to stop putting band-aids on bullet-holes.
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“Your Local Epidemiologist (YLE)” is written by Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, MPH PhD—an epidemiologist, data scientist, wife, and mom of two little girls. During the day she works at a nonpartisan health policy think tank and is a senior scientific consultant to a number of organizations, including the CDC. At night she writes this newsletter. Her main goal is to “translate” the ever-evolving public health science so that people will be well equipped to make evidence-based decisions. This newsletter is free thanks to the generous support of fellow YLE community members. To support this effort, subscribe below: