Exercise caution with full scale school active shooter exercises

Posted by on February 18, 2014

Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, we have noticed an increase in first responders, primarily law enforcement, conducting full scale exercises at schools using staff and students. These exercises are also coming under increased scrutiny by the media and broader public, as reported this past weekend in the NBC stories Fake Blood and Blanks: Schools Stage Active Shooter Drills and Do School Shooting Drills Go Too Far? Experts Weigh In.

While we certainly support full-scale exercises, we have concerns about student and staff well-being in exercises without proper mental health procedures in place. Our colleague and internationally-recognized school psychology expert, Dr. Scott Poland, recently said:

“I prefer tabletop exercises and practicing moving students and locking doors etc. but without sounds of gunfire. If a realistic drill has to be conducted then staff, not students, should be involved. I am concerned that students involved in realistic drills may have preexisting psychological issues and previous history of losses and that the drill might prompt a severe emotional reaction. I also recommend that students who participate in realistic drills be given a pre-test and a post-test so we can determine the effects of the drill.”

There is a risk that full-scale exercises could be conducted without proper planning and development. The best practice in the field is to at least conduct tabletops on the topic prior to full-scale. If first responders do a tabletop with local officials prior to the full-scale exercise, many student well-being issues would likely arise and be discussed.

To first responders and school community partners who are planning this type of student involved event, we encourage that they take the proper steps in emergency preparedness practices and conduct the proper planning in advance to minimize the trauma to staff, students, and ultimately students’ parents. Having the right partners from the various professional disciplines (education, mental health, communications, support staff,  parents, students, etc.) at the table for planning will help prevent an unsafe and embarrassing exercise.

School administrators must partner with first responders, but educators must also recognize that as well-meaning as the police and others may be, they do not always recognize how this type of exercise can traumatize students. School leaders are first and foremost responsible for the students’ well-being. If this type of exercise is proposed by local first responders, then educators should consult with local mental health professionals and include them in the planning process, as well as in the recommended tabletops.

Dr. Poland pointed out that one of the most important student outcomes is confidence in their school and community leaders:

“When we travel on an airplane, there is a short safety briefing and the passengers are confident that the flight crew knows what to do in an emergency. Schools need to train staff and assure students that staff know what to do. Students who are confident will often listen to the nearest adult and do what they are told to do in an emergency.”

Community confidence in school leaders is critical, but also fragile. Damage can be quickly done to the confidence students, staff, parents, and the community have in their principals, superintendents, and school board members.

We all want to make our schools as safe as possible and we applaud local first responders in their efforts to keep schools safe. But we also must proceed in a reasonable and responsible manner. Failing to do so will damage the well-intended efforts of school officials and their first responders, and ultimately undermine the credibility of such drills in the eyes of the broader school community.

Chuck Hibbert

Consultant to National School Safety and Security Services

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5 thoughts on “Exercise caution with full scale school active shooter exercises

  1. Joe Nichols says:

    I agree with this article that there should be active threat training taking place at the schools with the community involved. I disagree with the statement that only staff should be involved. Fire drills are conducted where all staff and students are involved. The same occurs when practicing for a weather emergency, i.e. tornado, earthquake, etc. Might it be possible that some students have a fear of these events and are traumatized? Why change protocol when it comes to this emergency situation? In the school shootings that have occurred, chaos ensues. Seeing how the school works as a whole is more important than seeing how it works as a part. Student leaders should be at the tabletop exercise and every student should know where to go and what to do during an exercise and in the event of a real time incident. In these times we must prepare everyone for everything that may affect school safety.

  2. Joe Nichols says:

    Although I agree with the cooperative training effort between schools and law enforcement, I must disagree with leaving children out of the training.

    Fire and natural disaster drills are a common occurrence at schools. Everyone at the school participates in these drills. Do all fire and natural disaster drills go according to plan? Of course not. Are some kids traumatized by these drills because they may be afraid of fire, tornadoes and/or earthquakes? Of course some are. But these are drills that occur over and over during the time children are in schools. Children have the knowledge of what to do in these types of emergencies with little direction over time. Giving children the information and showing them what to do in the event of an active threat will do more good than harm to children. Allowing children to be involved in a training exercise will provide confidence in not only their teachers and law enforcement, but themselves as well. The training will show children the where, when, how and why of procedures, just as drills for fire and natural disasters do. Full scale scenarios allows school staff, parents and emergency response agencies to see how everyone reacts to an active threat situation, including children. Having everyone participate in this type of training will better prepare everyone for a real life active threat.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      The majority of schools where I have seen full scale drills take place have conducted them when the full school is not in session. When using students, they have been volunteers from drama clubs, police explorers, etc. Students should, in my opinion, be required to have parental consent provided in writing for their participation. There needs to be extensive planning (often it involves six months or longer from our experiences) and strong communications prior to, during, and after the exercises. I think it is very wise to have mental health professionals at the table in all aspects of the planning, implementation, and debrief since we are dealing with children; although, I have seen and heard of adults having strong reactions to these drills, too.

  3. John Henderson says:

    Once again it seems that some jurisdictions are committing themselves to treating staff and students as though they are screened military or law enforcement officers. Full scale exercises with shooting simulations will not only traumatize some students, but it may also allow that one in the group that may be at risk of becoming a shooter in the future to experience a false sense of security and first hand look at law enforcement tactics. Trainers should not be traumatizing students and staff with overly complicated and realistic scenarios, nor should they be tipping their hands in regard to tactics. One never knows when the next shooter may actually be in the group being trained at that level, which could give an attacker an advantage in knowing what is coming once the shooting starts.

  4. John Henderson says:

    One things continues to bother me as more opinions are expressed. Many people seem to forget that most of the shooters come from the community where the attack occurred. That means that as you attempt to train everyone to deal with the shooter scenarios, you may be training a potential shooter of the future. I do not believe there is any circumstance where these tactics should be shared with the community. Yes, school districts and law enforcement should plan together and have complimentary response programs but no, the community and the school should not be exposed to high level training.
    I also feel that you cannot compare fire drills to active shooter drills. There are no law enforcement tactics at work and a fire drill simply teaches students to leave the facility for a variety of reasons, including smoke, odors, gas and water leaks and actual fires, which is a minority of the calls. It does not require students to do anything other than follow the appointed Fire Warden (probably the teacher) on an approved exit point. Shooter drills involve a lot of adrenaline and quick thinking on the part of all participants and knowing what they are training for will also increase the tension. Students and teachers should be taught to lockdown and allow the professionals to enter the facility and take out the threat with a minimum chance of interference. To do anything else invites disaster from well-meaning but poorly or untrained people that should not be getting involved in the response.

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