Many parents and communities worry that lockdown drills are too traumatic for students, creating a culture of fear at schools and increasing mental health issues. But recent events have shown the opposite, that lockdown drills effectively prepare students for when danger is present in the building. Despite the fact that at least 42 states require schools to conduct safety or security drills by statute, there is still no national standard for what these drills should look like. Learn more about why lockdown drills are so important and what questions you should ask about your school’s lockdown drill procedures.
First Things First: Definition of Terms
When it comes to school safety and security drills, you may have heard various terms flying around: “active assailant drill”; “active shooter drill”; “lockdown drill”, to name a few. PASS utilizes the term “lockdown” drills in alignment with both the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
It’s also important to distinguish between drills and exercises:
- A drill is an educational opportunity to test processes, procedures, and technology.
- An exercise refers to a simulation typically conducted by first responders in order to test their training.
As we’ve seen with fire, tornado, and other adverse weather drills, drills enhance school safety by allowing both students and staff to understand proper emergency procedures outside of a crisis situation.
Conversely, active shooter exercises or simulations can cause psychological trauma for students. As PASS Advisory Council member Guy Grace says, “We don’t set our schools on fire to practice fire drills.” As such, PASS does not find such simulations necessary for an adequate school safety and security plan.
Do Lockdown Drills Really Save Lives?
Contrary to public fears surrounding the mental health impacts of lockdown drills, ongoing research speaks to the effectiveness of the practice. Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor of criminal justice at State University of New York Oswego, has been working with New York’s fifth-largest school district since 2019 in order to better understand the impacts and efficacy of lockdown drills.
“Across the board, we’ve found that these drills increase feelings of preparedness and buy-in,” Schildkraut states in a December 2021 interview. “We’ve found that anxiety is lower after participating in a drill compared to before it, and … we’ve seen across the board … continued skill mastery, building that muscle memory, so if the very worst day ever comes and their mind goes blank, their body is going to perform the way we need them to perform to stay safe.”
Lockdown Drills: Just One Tool in the Toolbox
It’s important to remember that lockdown drills are only one tool in the toolbox of school safety and security. Schildkraut calls them a “response strategy,” or one that responds to the threat rather than actively preventing the behavior. Schools should also have concrete threat assessment practices in place, such as ways for teachers and students to report “leakage” (when a student shows public signs of planning a violent event) through anonymous reporting lines. (See the PASS Guidelines for more information on how to set up an anonymous reporting line.)
What Role Do Parents Play with Lockdown Drills?
School safety and security is a community effort. As such, parent involvement is key! Here are three things you can do to ensure lockdown drills are as effective as possible for your children:
1. Talk to Your Kids
Start by discussing the importance of these drills at home. If they’re not already, ask your school to communicate with you regarding the safety and security lessons they’re teaching your kids so you can reinforce them at home. These are difficult discussions for any parent to have, but having the conversation at home enhances schools’ efforts to keep our kids safe and secure.
2. Know the Plan
You should know your school’s emergency plan, not just for active shooters, but for emergencies like fires and bomb threats as well. If you’re not sure where to find this information, start by asking the principal and/or safety officials on staff. A few good questions to ask include:
- What drills are currently being carried out?
- Are safety drills being held at different times of the day?
- How often are school officials and safety experts meeting to discuss safety procedures?
- Do first responders have a floor plan of the school?
3. Be Proactive
If your school lacks a coherent, detailed, and specific plan, contact your school district or state department of education to demand that they set up a school safety and security plan for your child’s school.
Check Out the PASS Guidelines for Tips on How to Design a Lockdown Drill
For more information on how to design a lockdown drill appropriate for your school, PASS’s eight recommendations for conducting school safety drills can be found in our Guidelines. NASP and NASRO have also produced a collaborative publication on best practices surrounding lockdown drills. These resources are available at no cost.
The Center for Safe Schools is an initiative of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) to support and ensure a safe and secure environment for students, staff, and the community, with a focus on infrastructure; crisis and emergency management; whole child health; and cyber security.
The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) bringing together expertise from the education, public safety, and industry communities to develop and support a coordinated approach to making effective and appropriate decisions with respect to safety and security investments. You can download the complete PASS Guidelines on our website, or check out our PASS Safety and Security Checklist for quick tips on how to get started. These resources — as well as whitepapers on various topics including barricade devices, lockdown drills, and more — are available at no cost.
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The most comprehensive information available on best practices specifically for securing school facilities, vetted extensively by experts across the education, public safety and industry sectors.