LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

When do active shooter drills do more harm than good?

BY David Cruz, John Mooney |

New Jersey’s written guidance for a school active-shooter drill — essentially, practice for the most horrific of circumstances — is cold and dispassionate.

Get students out of sight. Keep them quiet. Window shades up. Lights off — just four of the nearly 50 steps outlined in a checklist circulated by the state Department of Education. Its job is to detail what to do before, during and after in security drills that, by law for the past decade, must be held in every public elementary, middle, and high school in New Jersey.

Those drills are now getting a second look for their potentially harmful impact on the students who participate in them, not a surprising toll that comes with the times.

But addressing that worry is tricky. There are a host of issues at play in both how the state came to this new reality for its public schools and where it may be headed.

For instance, studies find that most school shootings span no more than a few minutes, limiting the hope that first responders will reach the scene in time to help. For that reason, police in New Jersey and elsewhere are increasingly teaching older students and staff not to just to run and hide, but to fight back as a last resort.

Ending the siege mentality

In addition, law enforcement and education leaders are growing increasingly cautious about creating a siege mentality in schools; some are starting to press to soften the impact of active shooter drills or at least offer options.

Either way, for those on the front lines, it’s a matter of difficult decisions.

“There is no one-size-fits-all emergency drill for a school, just as there is no one single description for a violent encounter,” said former Denville Police Chief Charles Wagner, now with the state’s association of police chiefs.

“Unfortunately, we are only as good as the last one,” he said of those they drill against. “We don’t know what the next active shooter will look like, so we want to provide people with options.”

Added Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Public Schools and sponsor of a bill to better accommodate the most disabled children in security drills, “The last thing we want to do is frighten students, but we also want to be prepared. It’s a complicated problem.”

After decades of fire drills, bomb drills and bad weather drills, active shooter drills are a relatively recent requirement in New Jersey schools. The concept came to prominence with the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999. It gained additional urgency with the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as that in Beslan, Russia, where terrorists in 2004 stormed a primary school. The ensuing siege led to the deaths of 777 children, along with 300 others.

Enacting school security in law

By 2010, then-Gov. Jon Corzine signed into law the School Security Act, with new requirements about how and when schools should drill for the worst, specifically mandating “security drills” on top of fire drills, once a month. At the time, New Jersey was just one in 10 states with such requirements, although that number has since grown significantly.

The required security drills were defined in four specific categories:
• active shooter
• bomb threat
• lockdown
• evacuation (nonfire)

A drill addressing each category must be held at least twice a year. The first drill must be held within 15 days of school opening.

All kinds of other measures have been part of the mandated mix for schools to prepare for the worst, from memorandums of understanding with local police about emergency response and communication to the newest requirement that local police take part in at least one drill a year at each school.

Now, a decade later, have these drills worked in making New Jersey’s schools safer?

It’s hard to tell. Definitive research is pretty scant, in part because of the difficulty of evaluating school shootings. Despite all the headlines, these events are isolated and unique, each with its own “what ifs” and “if onlys.”

Nonetheless, there have been some lessons learned and studied. For starters, security drills have virtually been part of the preventive measures in the schools that have experienced mass shootings.

At the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018, the school had gone through an active shooter drill just a month before. Seventeen were killed in that attack, with questions whether the gunman had himself learned from the drill as well, slipping out the door with other fleeing students.

In another study conducted by the Secret Service in 2019, four out of five school attacks nationwide have spanned no more than five minutes, and a vast majority of those had lockdown procedures in place.

And there appears to be little public or political will to rolling back drills. Proposals abound in the State House to go even further, including panic alarms and fortified entrances, as well as a longstanding-yet-stalled proposal to allow parents to witness the drills as well.

Fighting back against active shooters

One growing movement is to prepare students and staff to fight back. Called ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate), the program includes teaching students and staff how to counter an assailant, when appropriate. Police stress it is aimed at older students, not those in elementary schools. About 80 New Jersey schools have been included in the training so far.

“We have taught to not just be a victim and just lay down and do nothing,” said Wagner, the former Denville police chief. “It is OK to fight back. If that is the last resort and that will be the difference between you getting hurt or killed, it is OK to do something. I think that is totally responsible as well, and it has been very effective for us.”

ALICE has also led to further thinking about how schools are prepared for assailants, ultimately leading to a more holistic approach. The report endorsed by the country’s biggest teachers’ union and released last month calls for a rethinking of the drills, including best practices that do not include simulations of attacks or violence.

Wagner himself agreed that these drills are never appropriate for students who have not been alerted beforehand, and never for young children at all.

He said live simulation drills can take place, but should happen after hours or in the summertime. “To surprise anyone with a make-believe violent encounter, I think that is totally irresponsible,” he said.

Jasey, the South Orange assemblywoman and herself a nurse, said she is considering legislation that would extend protections and accommodations beyond just students with disabilities.

And she said the state and its schools shouldn’t forget the value of building a stronger culture in the school that helps prevent such shootings in the first place.

“There is an argument to be made that we focus more on school climate, where everyone knows each other and trusts each other,” she said. “None of this is an easy fix, so we need to come at it from a lot of directions.”