Gun violence

How Lockdown Drills Can Retraumatize Kids Who Have Experienced Domestic Violence

School safety protocols can save lives, proponents say — but experts argue they are particularly harmful to kids who’ve been abused.

Written by Jennifer Mascia
Originally Published: 
Emma Chao/Scary Mommy; Getty Images

This story was published in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America. Sign up for their newsletters here.

The first active shooter drill that Jane Roberts can remember was in her first-grade classroom. She was 6. Her teacher turned off the lights and instructed the class to line up along the back wall and crouch down in the dark. They were told not to speak or move. As she hunkered down beside her classmates, Jane remembered how she’d curl up into a ball to shield herself from her father’s physical abuse, which she and her mother had just escaped a few months earlier. Now she was in a new school 2,000 miles away, but assuming a defensive position in the dark while trying not to make a sound brought it all back.

“It wasn’t the fact that we were pretending there was an active shooter that really scared me,” said Jane, now 17, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. “It was being cramped in a dark, small space, and the quiet.” It was so silent, she said, that “my classmates’ whispering scared me.”

Even today, the annual lockdown drills she undergoes at her high school in Chicago evoke those memories of abuse. Most triggering, she said, is when the intercom shatters the silence, announcing the end of the drill. “Anticipating that sound makes me nervous,” she said.

Lockdown drills have been a way of life for American children for more than a decade. Nearly 98 percent of U.S. public schools drilled students on lockdown procedures at least once during the 2019-2020 school year, when there were more than 49 million students enrolled in K-12 public schools, according to the most recent Department of Education data on crime and safety in schools.

Proponents say the drills can save lives. “We're teaching situational awareness and how to make good decisions in emergencies,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, ​​a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Oswego and co-author of a book on best practices for lockdown drills. “We should never want to remove that skill set from people.”

But people are questioning if the intense approach to hardening schools, including excessive and elaborate drills, does more harm than good. Lockdown drills were regularly conducted at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Oxford High School in Michigan, and Rancho Tehama Elementary, in California, prior to mass shootings at those schools, yet people were still wounded and killed. Some wonder whether these drills are worth the stress they can inflict on kids. “I was genuinely not sure if I would finish the day alive,” an eighth-grader in New Jersey told The Trace in 2019, after a particularly fraught lockdown drill.

But lockdown drills can be especially difficult — even damaging — for children who have experienced trauma outside of school, including violence at home. “You're trying to teach children how to react to a shooter in school, but you're going to have those situations where you have kids that have already been victims,” said Hidalgo County, Texas, District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, a survivor of child domestic violence himself. “I think we have to be careful that we don't re-victimize the victims.”

For kids living with domestic violence, the hours they spend in school can be a reprieve from abuse. But lockdowns and frequent talk of armed intruders can rob them of that comfort, experts tell The Trace. “These drills communicate the idea that, no matter where you go, you're at risk of violence,” said Jordyn Lawson, senior director of residential services at Genesis Women's Shelter in Dallas. “And that definitely can be a traumatizing experience.”

The Department of Education defines a lockdown drill as “a procedure that involves securing school buildings and grounds during incidents that pose an immediate threat of violence in or around the school.” Most lockdown drills last 10 to 15 minutes and are similar to what Jane described: Teachers lock the doors and turn off the lights, and students quietly move to a designated area that’s out of the line of sight of a potential attacker, like inside a closet or under a desk. An administrator or school resource officer checks each door to make sure it’s locked, then gives the all-clear.

American public schools began conducting active shooter drills after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, and they ramped up in earnest after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. During the 2005-2006 school year, 40 percent of public schools held lockdown drills; a decade later, 95 percent of schools had them.

Today, 41 states and Washington, D.C., require public schools to conduct at least one lockdown or shelter-in-place drill for students during the school year, according to an analysis of state laws and policies by The Trace. Some states require a single armed-intruder drill a year, while others have one per semester, every other month, or even monthly. Some drills involve administrators dressing up as attackers, simulated gunfire, fake blood, students role-playing as victims, and the participation of police and emergency personnel. Others play out more like a fire drill. There is no federal standard, something that irks school safety experts and parents alike.

“Lockdown drills, although they are promoted to prepare for the incidence of an active shooter at a school, can absolutely be traumatizing to a kid who has experienced other forms of violence not in a school setting,” said Nicole Hockley, who co-founded Sandy Hook Promise after her 6-year-old son, Dylan, was killed in the 2012 shooting. The nonprofit aims to prevent school violence through behavioral threat assessment and intervention. “My personal opinion is I wouldn't have students going through these drills anyway. I would have the adults be trained in what to do.”

But a growing number of schools have embraced a controversial model that directs students toward a proactive approach for active shooting situations, including barricading themselves in rooms and even confronting shooters directly. The ALICE Training Institute, the largest for-profit provider of active shooter instruction in the U.S., says it has worked with 5,548 school districts, or 41 percent of the country’s nearly 13,500 school districts. ALICE — an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate — has come under scrutiny because there’s scant evidence that its methods are effective.

Experts say these types of drills can be jarring for kids who’ve experienced abuse. Unannounced drills can be particularly traumatic, because students might mistake them for an actual shooting and experience flashbacks of past victimization. “The reality is, when you do live drills, you stand the potential of uncovering something that you didn't plan,” said David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

Some educators and school safety experts say that the element of surprise is necessary for students to learn how to perceive an actual threat. “If you don't feel like you're even in the slightest bit of risk, you don't take things like lockdown drills seriously,” said Schildkraut, the SUNY Oswego professor, who has been awarded a grant to research this theory. But Schonfeld, who has helped schools devise safety plans after they’ve experienced a mass shooting, said that simulating a real-life crisis is not necessary for students to grasp the urgency of an armed intruder.

“When we have a fire drill, we don't turn the temperature up in the school, we don't put smoke into the hallways, we don't put the sounds of people screaming over the PA system,” he said. “You don't really know what you're uncovering, or who you're going to be uncovering it in, when you put kids through a very difficult crisis drill.”

At one high school he worked with, Schonfeld said a lockdown triggered by the unintentional release of pepper spray caused two students to have recurrent panic attacks over the next several days. Schonfeld suspected they were reacting to some other stressor in their lives, and pressed administrators to dig deeper. They did, and learned that one student was mourning the death of a parent, while the other had been sexually assaulted by a family member.

“Even when a drill is done well, if there's some experience that kids have had, it's very difficult,” he said.

Some school safety experts say that despite their downsides, lockdown drills have a net positive effect. Former FBI Special Agent David Morgan, who served as head of risk management at Jackson Local School District, in Ohio, from 2019 to 2022, said teaching personal safety to children is important. “I think many kids are just not aware of the threats that are out there,” Morgan said. “And I think that's frankly part of what school is: You need to learn not only reading and writing and arithmetic, but you need to learn how to deal with people, and how to protect yourself.”

Schildkraut, who’s been working to standardize and refine school safety protocols for the Syracuse City School District since 2018, said students who undergo active shooter drills “felt significantly more prepared to respond to emergencies — not just a lockdown, but any emergency that could happen in their school.” But she noted, “We did find a slight trade-off of a little bit of a decrease in their perceived safety.”

In addition to regularly scheduled drills, there are the shooting threats and bomb scares that trigger lockdowns, providing more opportunities for kids to be exposed to trauma. After a false report of an active shooter was called into a Houston high school on September 13, SWAT and police officers roamed classrooms armed with handguns, rifles, and tactical gear. Two days later, a false report of a gun on the campus of a high school in Bethesda, Maryland, triggered an hourlong lockdown in which kids were forced to crouch in small spaces with the lights off in total silence. “Do you know how long an hour is when you think you are going to die?” one student said.

During lockdowns, students may be evacuated to staging areas, prompting some of them to text goodbye messages to their parents — or, in the case of a 7-year-old in Delaware, to scrawl one on their arm.

Given the lack of federal standards and guidelines, there are significant differences in approaches to school safety drills nationwide, which Schonfeld said is “problematic.” He was left disappointed when a school safety commission convened by former President Donald Trump after the Parkland shooting concluded that the decision to conduct active shooter drills with students “is something each community must determine for itself.”

“Why?” he said. “All communities have children who have been traumatized. All communities have children who are grieving.”

As chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters, Schonfeld advises the current administration for strategic preparedness and response. But even he conceded that “it's very hard developing standards for what's done in schools for almost anything in this country.” That’s because even though the federal government presides over the nation’s public schools, he said, states still have a lot of authority, similar to the way states regulated abortion before Roe v. Wade was reversed, or same-sex marriage before it was federally recognized, or set requirements for new vehicles now. “States can decide whether or not kindergarten is required,” he said.

In lieu of national protocols, stakeholders are left to fill in the gaps. A handful of states, including Illinois and Washington, have passed laws in recent years prohibiting lockdown drills that include active shooter simulations. And last year, the National Association of School Psychologists joined with the National Association of School Resource Officers to devise their own guidance on armed intruder drills in schools that includes an “imperative that safety drills of any kind do not unintentionally trigger or exacerbate students’ or staff sense of risk or trauma.”

The guidance followed a first-ever policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics on kids’ participation in active shooter drills, which Schonfeld co-authored. It highlighted the unintended consequences of realistic, high-intensity drills, and cautioned against practices that “cause untoward psychological distress.” It also noted that “the unique needs of…children who suffered traumatic events in the past, and those with physical, intellectual, and neurodevelopmental disabilities, are rarely considered and addressed in live exercise planning.”

“If you're going to have an active shooter drill, what's the best way to do it so it's not traumatic?” Hockley said. One way, she said, is to give students a voice when crafting these drills. School safety protocols should also take into account the fact that kids in some communities are already disproportionately affected by gun violence. “You need to be responsive to the culture in which you're having the drill,” she said. Schools should give parents advance notice of drills, she added, and give kids the option to opt out.

Most adults didn’t grow up with active shooter drills at school, Hockley said, and “have no idea of what we're putting our kids through. If you're going to do something to them, at least allow them to have a voice in how it's done, so that they feel more in control of the situation. Because that's how you create a sense of safety and trust. And that's what's missing in a lot of drills right now.”

Jane, the young domestic violence survivor in Chicago, started her final year of high school in August. She is looking forward to the day when she won’t have to crouch down in the dark and relive her most painful memories.

“I'm not sure what another solution would be,” she said. “Obviously, it'd be better if we didn't have to.”

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