In the first hour of a mid-April school day, students at Middletown High School were on lockdown. Students knew little about the severity of the emergency. In fact, they soon found out there was no emergency at all. The lockdown was an unannounced drill, and students learned about it only as it was happening.
Unannounced drills to prepare students for active shooters are becoming increasingly common as education systems have been the scene of high-profile shootings. In seeking to ensure student safety, school leaders walk a fine line between traumatizing students and preparing them for this reality.
In the past year, several schools made national news for mishandling such drills. Teachers in Evansville, Indiana, were taken into a room and shot “execution-style” with pellet guns, according to the Evansville Courier & Press. In Missouri, students were outfitted with fake blood for one simulation, according to NBC News.
In Maryland, schools are required to practice at least one active assailant drill a year, said Scott Blundell, Frederick County Public Schools supervisor of security and emergency management. The schools determine the timing of drills on their own, though Blundell’s office is often notified to help assess the school’s response.
There is always a small group of people in each school who know when a drill is happening, even if it is unannounced for the rest of the people in the school, Blundell said. Informing everyone — from staff to students to parents — can be a logistical nightmare, so schools often perform the drill and then send a FindOutFirst alert shortly after to parents and community residents, Blundell said.
The alert related to the Middletown High lockdown came just over an hour after the drill began.
The ways in which drills are conducted in Frederick County have changed in the last five years, Blundell said. Instead of previous models of lockdown drills that included teachers turning out lights and locking doors while students hide, today’s generation of youth are taught to avoid the assailant, which can mean exiting the school, denying access to rooms, which can include piling furniture and other items to block doorways and in the most extreme cases defending against the assailant.
Students practice “avoid and deny” during the drills, Blundell said. At the elementary level, students are taught ways to exit the school when necessary but are not told reasons why such drills are necessary so they do not become scared, Blundell said.
The drills are not announced to students and staff until it is happening so school leaders can gauge the schoolwide response, he said. The announcement when the drill begins is to avoid confusion and so students are not traumatized, he said.
However, students said even going through a drill can be traumatic, even when they know it is a drill. The reality of violence at schools — such as the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead — comes to mind when a drill is announced, said Navian Scarlett, a senior at Frederick High School.
The threat of danger affects students, even if they have not experienced gun violence firsthand, she said.
“It really weighed down on me, because I was standing next to my friends [and] I thought about what if it was real?” Scarlett said. “What would I do? What if I end up being one of the people who had to protect someone? Where would I go?”
Drills that traumatize students are counterproductive, said Melissa Brymer, terrorism and disaster program director at the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. The point of drills is to practice and learn, she said. Examples of schools in which there was confusion over whether the alarm was a real event and students sent goodbye text messages to loved ones underline her point, she said.
“There’s too much stress, so we’re not learning what we’re supposed to do in these instances,” Brymer said. “Are people learning, or are they panicking for their life?”
Media coverage and basic human fear often make the threat of violence at schools seem more common than it really is, said Michele Gay, Safe and Sound Schools founder. A 2018 study from Northeastern University found schools are safer than they were in the 1990s and gun violence involving students has declined in recent decades.
“This is very modern-day horror,” Gay said. “It’s a possibility that lives in everyone’s mind. It’s a very rare occurrence, but it doesn’t feel that way.”
Creating elaborate drills to simulate an active shooter plays into that fear, she said.
“We really don’t need the sensorial experience for our teachers and students,” Gay said. “We don’t do that for fires. We don’t light the classroom on fire or use fake smoke. ... It’s those behaviors we want to train on. We just want them to have those muscle memories.”