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How schools are solving a safety dilemma

When designing active-shooter drills, districts must balance readiness with the potential to traumatize students and staff
  • PREPARING FOR THE WORST—Emergency responders participate in an active shooter drill at Red Land High School in Pennsylvania. Staff and students spent a year planning the exercise in which two actors used fake handguns loaded with blanks.
  • LESSONS LEARNED—Police debrief after the active shooter drill at Red Land High School. The school follows the “Run. Hide. Fight.” philosophy to teach students and staff to think critically during an emergency.
  • AGE CONSIDERATIONS—Staff and emergency responders search a hallway during an active shooter drill at Sunset Elementary School in Washington. High school and college students posed as victims because administrators feared younger children could be traumatized by the experience.

Going into his third year as principal of Sunset Elementary School near Spokane, Washington, Ty McGregor feels more confident that he has prepared his building for an intruder or active shooter.  

While school was out this past June, a group of staff members, students and emergency responders conducted drills on two potentially devastating scenarios: a shooter and a hostage crisis. The participants practiced with blank rounds, smoke and fake wounds to simulate an intense and frightening situation.

The harrowing activities allowed the school, which is part of the Cheney School District, to fine-tune its communication and emergency plans for the coming year, McGregor says.  


Sidebar: Learning from lockdown drills


“Last year we had a bomb threat and mobilized the whole school of 440 kids and staff to a local church,” he says. “It went well, but if we practiced, we could see the snags and get better each time.”

As part of the scenario, McGregor and local authorities in the city of Airway Heights decided to involve high school and college students rather than the elementary school’s children, who may have found the gunshots, fake blood and loud fire alarm traumatic.

“It was pretty intense,” McGregor says. “I could hear gunfire throughout the building and yelling and screaming as people acted out their parts according to their injury. I was lying down in the main office [pretending I had] a bullet wound to my head.”  

The drills exposed some weak points in the emergency plan. So, with funds from a district bond measure, McGregor installed more security cameras in front of the building and two large screen monitors in the front office to enable staff to see everyone who enters the building. Visitors had been able to enter the school without going through the office.  

“Timing is everything, and we always talk about that during our regular lockdown drills,” he says. “How quickly can we respond in any given scenario to get the school safe?”

Across the country, schools are weighing the pros and cons of practicing worst-case scenario drills without unduly traumatizing students, staff and the community.

Some districts conduct active drills with the entire school while others involve emergency responders and a small group of students and staff.

A third group thinks it’s best to discuss critical thinking skills and make a plan rather than walk through a full scenario.

They all agree on one aspect, though—these conversations and preparations ensure the drills become an effective part of a school’s overall safety strategy.

Guardians at the grassroots

At Red Land High School in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, students, teachers and staff planned for more than a year before they conducted an active shooter drill with fake victims and two actors who used fake revolvers loaded with blanks.

With her school located across the Susquehanna River from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, Principal Holly Sayre designed the drill to serve for more than a violent intruder. She wanted the school of 1,200 students to also be ready for other emergencies, such as a radiation leak or extreme weather disasters.

Sayre knew her students needed to develop a decision-making mentality about what to do in a crisis.

Red Land, part of the West Shore School District, implemented the “Run. Hide. Fight.” plan, which instructs students to critically assess a scenario and then decide whether it’s safest to run from the building, hide in a barricaded area or fight the intruder.

Because the first choice is to flee, during the drill many students left the building and met at outdoor rally points where they would be reunited with parents and where local mental health providers could offer immediate counseling.

Since it was raining that day, the students found some uphill meeting spots were slippery and needed to be changed for the next time.

The second alternative is hiding. Several classrooms lack direct access to outside, so students and teachers hid, barricading the doors and ducking.

The last resort—fighting an intruder—was practiced by students in the cafeteria. Throughout the process, students discovered that communicating by mass text would be effective. They also determined which students and teachers would lead entire classrooms in the “Run. Hide. Fight.” scenario.

“The whole situation gives administrators a great opportunity to remind the kids that this is their school and they’re at the grassroots,” Sayre says. “They’re probably going to hear about something before we do, and we need to create a culture where the kids know they can tell us about safety concerns.”

Empowering students and staff

Tabletop exercises and classroom sessions build the critical thinking skills of staff and students without exposing them to the potential trauma of an active-shooter drill. At Red Clay Consolidated School District in Delaware, students and teachers at the 26 schools discuss how to apply “Run. Hide. Fight.” concepts.

Elementary school teachers, for example, marshal children outside the school. High school students decide where they might barricade themselves and identify safe places to reassemble.

“We do our best to avoid the shock factor and not make the exercise seem like anything beyond what it is—preparing for another emergency,” says Brian Moore, director of public safety for the district. Moore is a member of the Association of School Business Officials International, which offers annual safety classes and best practices for drills of all types.

The organization recommends that districts conduct tabletop discussions that lead to annual lockdown drills. Administrators must also maintain close relationships with police, firefighters and other professionals who will respond to an emergency.

“Always keep the kids in mind and how they’re going to react—don’t let them be surprised,” Moore says. “We have frank conversations about the fact that bad things happen, but our job is to make sure they’re safe.”

Administrators wary of drills frightening students should consider that these activities can also help a school community feel safer, adds Paul Timm of RETA Security, which provides school safety services and training for groups such as ASBO.

“I’ve seen drills empower people,” he says. “They get closer to the real situation when they walk through it, and they develop the confidence, motor skills and decision-making that could make a difference during an incident.”

Better relationships make us safer Al Gille, the safety and security coordinator of Great Oaks Career Campuses in Cincinnati, oversees safety at four major facilities with 34 feeder high schools. His crisis plan starts with a focus on bullying—stopping that behavior is the surest way to prevent threats and violence, he says.

To that end, Great Oaks teachers learn to respond quickly if they spot the emotional or physical signs that a student is being bullied. Educators also coach students—who can report safety concerns anonymously—to recognize when a classmate is abusing drugs or alcohol.

“In reality, our biggest fears probably won’t happen, but this training also works for fights in schools, which I will definitely see this year,” Gille says. “The only way I know to prevent a school shooting starts with building relationships with students.”


Carolyn Crist is a writer in Athens, Georgia.