Threat Hallway

In Maryland public schools are required to practice at least one active assailant drill a year. During a drill hallways would be cleared and classroom doors closed such as this hallway at Brunswick High School after hours Thursday.

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.”

Follow Wyatt Massey on Twitter: @News4Mass.

(19) comments


Stop...drop...and roll. It was simple, fun, not scary and may have wider applications.


Poor snowflakes are going to be traumatized. Really? Parents get some thick skin and parent properly and stop babying them. I know its hard.


Our granddaughter in middle-school in Virginia has nightmares as a result of these active shooter drills. Children should not have to be in fear for their lives when they attend school each day.


Muscle memory takes constant drilling - like in the military or law enforcement - not once a year. And it takes drilling under extreme and stressful circumstances. Ask anyone who’s undergone such training if trauma isn’t actually the point of it - that’s how you reprogram your brain to go right to automatic responses.

This is wishful thinking. Until the country gets serious about gun control, every one of these students has a target on their back and further terrorizing them with practice death drills is ridiculous.


Gun control is another term for taking away the good guys guns and not doing jack s**t to take illegal guns off the street. You know, speeding is illegal and we all still do it, heroin is illegal but yet these criminals just keep selling it. So tell me how gun control would make us safer by writing out some unconstitutional law that will effect law abiding citizens only.


Right, everything should be legal - murder, burglary, hand grenades, and so on, right?

Jim Hartley

Here's how. Repeal the 2nd amendment. Ban the sale or ownership of guns that fire multiple rounds quickly. Then start buying them off the street and melting them down. That's how.

Jim Hartley



Agreed seven, it's nonsense. As stated in the article, the number of school shootings has gone down in the recent decades. A students probability of being killed in a school shooting on any given day is 1 in 655,000,000, or one in six hundred fifty million. You are twice as likely to win Powerball than being shot and killed in school. How many Powerball winners do you know? What we are accomplishing is nothing but instilling fear in the students of something that is highly unlikely to occur. We dont need to terrorize them with "realistic" unannounced drills.


Interesting they don't tell elementary schools why they are performing the drills, their is a daycare center in Frederick county that does, and these children are 4 and under.


Ah, yes, reminds me of the good old days when we drilled for nuclear annihilation. We were preparing the the end of the world and the death of everyone we loved and held dear, and no one, no one at all, cared one whit if we were "traumatized". Not sure what it all means.


And the threat of nuclear attack during the cold war felt very real, like it could happen any day. It wasn't constantly on my mind, but air-raid siren tests sure scared me--wasn't alway sure it was a "test," especially at night.


More snowflakes in the world today, would be my guess.


No, more children that are scared of getting blown away by some nut with an easily obtainable weapon. Quite the lack of perspective.


Sam, see my response above, one in six hundred fifty five million. Better chance of winning Powerball. Therefore, the fear being instilled in them by the media is unrealistic.


C'mon. Lots of "things" happened to kids back when but we know better now. Kids came to school with bruises, unkempt, some slept...outbursts weren't interpreted as, "hmm, stress at home, buddy?" If you complained about bullying you were told it happens to everyone, suck it up. Children were not the center of the universe. And they knew it.




And yet you constantly see these students leaving school totally absorbed in their smartphones oblivious to their surroundings. I’ve seen them just walk out into the street and almost get hit. Your more probable to get hit by a car than by a bullet.


As a parent of college age kids, it is my experience that "kids these days" actually pay attention more than they appear to. Always being plugged into their iPhones, they experience the world differently than we older folks, for better or worse.

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