Lockdown Drills Shouldn’t Be Optional: They Just Should Be Done Correctly

Recent concerns over school lockdown drills raise questions about their efficacy. Although the research base remains small but growing, there is evidence that lockdown drills—done the right way—can prepare students, faculty, and staff to respond in the event of a threat in their building. One study involving a sample of students between the ages of 8 and 11 found that training on an intruder drill procedure improved skill gain without increasing anxiety during the practice. Kindergartners in a separate study obtained mastery on most steps during a lockdown drill when they received appropriate training and were given the opportunity to practice what they learned.

My recent research, in coordination with a team of collaborators, conducted with more than 21,000 students and 3,500 faculty and staff members in a New York school district, produced similar results. Skill mastery was gained for most steps in the procedure – locking doors, turning off lights, and not responding to door knocks (although like the other studies, maintaining silence during the drill proved to be an area for improvement with continued practice).

Additionally, students, faculty, and staff reported that drills and the accompanying training made them feel more prepared for different types of emergencies, including an active shooter.

The evidence that these drills are helpful practices to prepare school communities for the worst day does exist – even if politicians and others choose not to acknowledge it.

Are there reasons to be concerned about the way in which some of these drills are conducted? Absolutely. Teachers don’t need to be shot with pellet guns in order for lockdown drills to be an effective tool for preparation. Kids don’t need to be exposed to the sounds of simulated gunfire or crisis actors covered in fake blood either. And they shouldn’t be either.

Not all drills, however, are conducted in a way that makes headlines for the worst possible reasons. Instead, best practices are available to help guide how drills should be conducted and offer ways in which associated trauma can be lessened. Here’s how to do them effectively.

First, drills should never be unannounced (always tell people that it is a drill so they do not assume it is an actual emergency). Second, conduct a debrief at the end of the drill to remind students, as well as faculty and staff, what they participated in and why they did it. Provide the opportunity for questions to be asked. Third, follow up with training to help reinforce concepts and address areas in need of improvement. And finally, run additional drills to continue practicing and build muscle memory—this allows individuals to respond the way they were trained even when their cognitive functioning may be impaired by stress.

While active shooter drills and exercises prepare people for a single situation—a person actively trying to kill other people—lockdown drills can be used for a number of different emergencies, such as an angry/violent student or parent, dangerous animal, or other internal threat. Moreover, instead of preparing only for school shootings, as with active shooter practices, lockdown drills often are part of a comprehensive, all-hazards emergency preparedness plan that also offers guidance for other situations, such as fires (evacuation) and weather-related emergencies (shelter-in-place).

Though rare events, mass shootings, including those occurring in schools, are increasing in frequency. Not providing people – kids included – with the tools to stay safe if the worst day comes is no longer an option.

Neither is saying “it could never happen here.”

Take it from me. I grew up in the community it could never happen in – Parkland, FL – and on Valentine’s Day in 2018, it did happen. What made the situation more tragic is that the school failed to equip people with the necessary skills to respond.

Students had received no training; teachers had received the bare minimum. No lockdown drills had been conducted to practice responses.

Would it have changed the outcome? We will never know. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give our schools the tools to respond if faced with a similar situation.

Lockdown drills can be valuable learning experiences that can help to improve responses in emergencies like school shootings. The evidence does exist. And it is time that we put our opinions and emotions aside and prepare. We prepare for emergencies on airplanes; schools should be no different.