The day after Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a blaring alarm went off at the elementary school one block from my home. It was the middle of recess, and I saw confused first graders and slightly toughened fifth graders scramble toward their classrooms. I later discovered that I had witnessed the school’s first active shooter drill—designed to train staff and students, while setting parents’ minds at ease.
This is the world in which we send our children to school. A world of Sandy Hooks, Virginia Techs, Columbines—and the occasional false alarm. Such tragedies are rare (the risk of dying in a school shooting is about 1 in 614 million and those odds may be declining) but drills to prepare for an active shooter intuitively make sense, the same way drills to prepare for fires strike the ear as sound. Yet experts are not convinced. While there are clear benefits to training faculty and first responders to maneuver efficiently during emergencies, there’s scant evidence that students internalize skills acquired during drills. And active shooter drills may undermine students’ sense of security, triggering long-term psychological impacts.
“Active shooter drills are a constant reminder that you’ve got a bullseye on your back,” James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northwestern University who studies mass shootings. “In the wake of a shooting, students sometimes say that if there had been drills they would have known what to do. Maybe. I’m not sure there’s hard evidence it would have prepared them.”
“It can create feelings of helplessness,” adds Jillian Peterson, a psychologist at Hamline University who has conducted research on the psychological effects of active shooter drills.