Active Shooter Drills with Students – Good Idea or Bad?

While school shootings, unfortunately, are nothing new, we are seeing them occur with greater frequency.  Without getting into my thoughts on firearms, I will say that preparedness, prevention, and mitigation for mass shooting incidents in schools and other soft targets of opportunity, are multi-faceted.  Shooters are just as much of a persistent threat as hurricanes, tornadoes, or flooding; amplified by the will of the shooter(s) to do harm and their ability to reason through paths of deterrence.  While a number of measures can and should continue to be implemented to prevent and protect soft targets, just as we do with natural hazards, we must continue to prepare for an attack that slips past or through our preventative measures.

Readers will know that I’m a huge advocate of exercises in the emergency management/public safety/homeland security space.  While the primary purpose of exercises is to validate plans, policies, and procedures; we also use them to practice and reinforce activities.  Certainly every school, college, shopping mall, office building, and other mass gathering space should hold active shooter drills.  Many of these facilities already conduct regular fire evacuation drills, and shooter drills should also be added to the mix.

Where to start?  First of all, you need a plan.  ALL EXERCISES START WITH A PLAN.  The sheer number of exercises I’ve seen conducted with no plan or a knowingly poor plan in place is staggering.  If people don’t know what to do or how to do it, the value of the exercise is greatly diminished.  If you are a responsible party for any of these spaces, reach out to your local law enforcement and emergency management office for assistance in developing an active shooter protection plan.  If you are a regulated facility, such as a school or hospital, the state offices that provide your oversight are also a resource.  You can find some planning guidance here and here.   While your focus with this activity is an active shooter protection plan, recognize that you will also need to re-visit the public information component of your emergency operations plan (you have one, right?) and your business continuity plan, as I guarantee you will need to reference these in the event of a shooting incident.  A final note on planning… don’t do it in a vacuum!  It should be a collaborative effort with all relevant stakeholders.

As for exercises, consider what you want to accomplish and who needs to be involved.  In a mall, it’s not wise to include shoppers in exercises since they are a transient audience and forcing their involvement will very likely be some bad PR and impact stores financially.  That said, you need to anticipate that mall shoppers won’t know what to do or how to react to a shooter, therefore mall staff need to be very forceful and persistent in how they deal with patrons in such an incident.  Therefore, involving mall staff along with law enforcement and other stakeholders in an off-hours exercise is a great idea.

Schools, however, are a different situation, as their populations are static for an extended period of time.  While school faculty and staff should exercise with law enforcement, there are different thoughts on how and when to involve kids in these exercises.  There are some that advocate their involvement, while there are some who are adamantly opposed.  I reflect back on fire evacuation drills, which occur with regularity in schools. These drills reinforce procedure and behavior with students.  They know they need to line up and proceed calmly and well behaved along a designated path to exit the building, proceeding to a meeting spot where teachers maintain order and accountability.  These are behaviors that stick with many into adulthood if they find themselves in a fire evacuation (drill or otherwise) – so it’s also a learning experience.  The same holds for tornado and earthquake drills, which are held regularly in many areas around the country.  Fundamentally, for a shooter situation, we also need to reinforce procedure and behavior with students.  They need to know what to do in lockdown, lockout, and evacuation.

The prospect of a shooter is a horrible thing for anyone to deal with, much less a child.  I’ve spoken to parents who, themselves, are horrified about the prospect of speaking to their children about a shooter in their school.  In every occasion, I’ve said this: You damn well better talk to them about it.  This is a discussion with perhaps greater importance than talks about strangers, drugs, alcohol, or sex; and it needs to begin with children from kindergarten on up.  Schools need to teach students what to do when the alert occurs for an active shooter – typically this involves getting them safely out of view from someone who might be in the hallway while teachers lock or barricade the door and turn off lights.  Students need to understand the gravity of the situation and remain still and quiet.  Evacuation will generally only occur under someone’s direction.  There will be loud noises and it’s likely the police won’t speak kindly as they are clearing rooms, looking for a shooter and potential devices.  To be certain, it’s scary for adults and I wish our children didn’t have to endure such a thing, but practicing and reinforcing procedures and behavior will save lives.  I’ll offer this article, that discusses some of the potential psychological impacts of shooter drills on kids.  These impacts are a reality we also need to deal with, but I think the benefits of the drills far outweigh the costs.

Mass shootings, like most aspects of public safety, underscore the need for us to do better not only in public safety response, but also as a society.  The answers aren’t easy and there is no magic pill that will provide a solution to it all.  It requires a multifaceted approach on the part of multiple stakeholders, sadly even those as young as four years old, to prepare, prevent, and protect.

© 2018 – Timothy M. Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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