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Lockdown Nation

Across the country, students are regularly practicing active shooter drills. But are the exercises making kids safer? And at what cost?

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At 1:05 p.m. on a Monday this past December, Boulder’s Whittier International Elementary School is eerily still. There are no lines of children tromping down the hallways. Not one fourth-grader hurries to the bathroom; packs of giggling fifth-grade girls are nowhere to be seen. Even the air is lifeless, leaving the world flags hanging above the entry hall limp. The scene could be a welcome reprieve from the daily chaos of an elementary school, if not for the flat recorded voice droning over the intercom: “Lockdown, lockdown, lockdown. Security alert.”

Principal Sarah Oswick seems to be the only person in the building as she walks with purpose toward a second-grade classroom and uses her key to unlock the door. Inside, it’s dark and silent. A teacher crouches in the corner of an otherwise empty room. At least, it appears empty. “Thank you for staying hidden,” Oswick says to the line of backpacks and jackets hanging along one wall. Only then do kids emerge from the cubbies behind the clutter. They’ve been huddled there for 10 minutes, practicing what to do if a gunman were ever to stalk the building’s art-project-lined hallways.

Thirty years ago, no one would’ve prepared for such an aberrant scenario. Then there was Columbine—which is why Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) students practice these lockdown drills once a semester. Today, 94.6 percent of American public schools conduct lockdowns drills and 92.4 percent have written plans for active shooter scenarios, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In some places, notably Columbine’s Jefferson County School District, lockdown drills begin in preschool. For the so-called Columbine Generation, practicing how not to get shot during homeroom is nearly as commonplace as standardized testing.

But lockdowns don’t always feel ordinary for students, or for teachers or staff, for that matter. “It’s stressful on the adults—and sad, and scary,” says Whittier kindergarten teacher Maurie Marcil. “Statistically, we know shootings are not that common. However, when you hear about it on the news…that can be terrifying.”

And though some Colorado schools, like Whittier, try to downplay the reasons such drills are necessary by telling kids they’re rehearsing what to do in case a bear or mountain lion gets into the school, even young students aren’t fooled. “We do drills so if there’s ever wildlife or a dangerous person in our building, we can be safe and not get hurt,” explains Whittier fourth-grader Heitz Biderman.

As students age, any lingering pretense evaporates. Porscha Carey, a senior at Peyton Junior-Senior High School, about 20 minutes east of Colorado Springs, has experienced active shooter drills in both junior high and high school. “When I was younger, I thought of it as a joke—this is fun, I don’t have to go to class,” she says. “I didn’t think about the severity of it. During the high school drills, I was really kind of scared. Probably because as I got older, I started watching the news.”

Few dispute that such drills can be disturbing for kids. However, surprisingly little empirical research has been done into the psychological effects of lockdown drills. Anecdotal reports, from teachers and parents, of children panicking, experiencing lasting anxiety, or having nightmares are not uncommon, though, says Melissa Brymer, program director for the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress’ terrorism and disaster program. And according to Jillian Peterson, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Minnesota’s Hamline University and one of the few academics who have studied the topic, active shooter training increased the fear of a violent incident taking place on campus in many of the college students she examined. “For younger students, the idea of acting out a shooter trying to get through your door can be very traumatic,” Peterson says. “It changes their view of the world, and of what schools are”—that is, no longer a safe place where adults can protect them.

The more hotly contested questions are instead focused on effectiveness. In short: Is the stress worth it? Peterson argues that even though her own research suggests training makes students feel more prepared for a crisis-level event, it isn’t. “The idea that you could possibly predict how [a shooting] would play out doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she says, adding that schools could train faculty in how to respond in an emergency and instruct kids to listen to their teachers.

Brymer offers a compelling counterpoint: “We know these active shooter drills save lives,” pointing to reports from people who have been through school shootings and credit lockdown readiness for their survival. Most mass shootings are over within minutes, prompting proponents of the drills to say anything that helps students get behind locked doors faster is valuable, even if detractors remind us they’re preparing for extremely isolated incidents.

Of course, fires are unlikely too, says John-Michael Keyes, whose 16-year-old daughter, Emily, was shot and killed at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey in 2006. “Let’s talk about fire drills,” he says. “We could apply the same logic: Are we really traumatizing our students by giving them lifesaving strategies for a rare event?” Perhaps part of the answer lies in how schools go about teaching them.

Although active shooter drills have become customary across the nation—Colorado’s 2000 Safe Schools Act requires public schools to hold all-hazard drills “to the extent possible”—no federal mandates or standards exist about how, exactly, to conduct them. “Lockdown drills are not specifically mentioned in the Safe Schools Act,” says Chris Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, “but schools are encouraged to do them.” That encouragement at the local level doesn’t come with an instruction manual, either, leaving both public school districts and private institutions to decide for themselves.

Many schools—in Colorado and throughout the country—follow the Standard Response Protocol (SRP), a quartet of instructions issued by the Colorado-based I Love U Guys Foundation in 2009. John-Michael Keyes and his wife, Ellen, launched the program in an effort to develop a common language and set of actions to follow during any crisis, not just active violence. But the SRP does address mass-casualty scenarios. Should a shooter ever enter a school building, for example, SRP teaches “locks, lights, out of sight.” In other words: a lockdown. Get behind a bolted door, turn off the lights, and hide where someone peering into the room can’t see you. The goal, according to Brendan Sullivan, director of safety, security, and emergency services for BVSD, is to “make the school a ghost town.”

It’s difficult to argue with the success of the lockdown strategy. “We talked to first responders and looked at data from hundreds of active violence events at schools,” Keyes says. “Rarely has a gunman breached a locked classroom door, and rarely has someone who’s been out of sight been injured.” But with each new tragedy, experts and districts try to refine their tactics. This inevitably leads to rifts about best practices.

After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, some schools began adopting an options-based approach, called Run, Hide, Fight, following new recommendations from the U.S. Department of Education. This strategy teaches more flexible responses to an active shooter threat—perhaps running out of the building instead of locking down, barricading classroom doors, and even instructing kids to throw books at an attacker if necessary. Sticking to a strict lockdown such as that suggested in the SRP could leave students vulnerable in an unpredictable situation, the thinking goes, so it’s better to empower them to react in a way that’s concordant with the circumstance.

Grand Junction’s Mesa County Valley School District 51 has been using a modified version of Run, Hide, Fight for several years. “We teach students how to barricade doors,” says Tim Leon, the district’s director of safety and security. “And depending on the age level of the students, we can get them involved in their own self-protection.”

Others, however, question not only the messaging—which some say is counterproductive—but also the wisdom of Run, Hide, Fight. “It’s a bit misguided,” says Rick Kaufman, executive director of community relations and emergency management for public schools in Bloomington, Minnesota. Kaufman worked for Jefferson County Public Schools in 1999 and was one of the first school district officials on the scene of the Columbine attack. While lockdowns have been proven effective, “running creates the potential for panic,” he says. “And you might be running into the shooting.”

The noises coming from the hall sounded distinctly like gunshots to Dakota Rogers. Her high school English teacher stopped his lecture midsentence and made haste to check the door locks and turn off the lights before herding his charges toward a corner. They heard screaming. Then more gunshots. They huddled in place for roughly two hours before exiting through a back door. As they evacuated Peyton Junior-Senior High, Rogers saw paramedics tending to what looked like wounded students.

It took a few minutes, but reality hit Rogers as she fled the building. The entire thing had been a drill. The active shooter was an actor firing blanks. The blood was fake. The police and paramedics were part of the rehearsal. In school security parlance, what Rogers had just experienced was a “simulated shooting.” Parents had been notified about the exercise ahead of time, but students were taken by surprise.

Although they may be the most dramatic example, simulated shootings are not the only way schools have begun to take drills to elaborate new levels. Desiring more realistic dress rehearsals, schools have adjusted the traditional drilling model in a variety of ways. Denver Public Schools (DPS), for example, switched to surprise drills in the 2018-’19 school year to allay concerns that scheduled drills were not preparing students, says DPS director of emergency management Melissa Craven.

Other schools are experimenting with what Kaufman calls “enhanced drills.” These might occur during passing periods, lunch, or recess, when students aren’t under the direction of one faculty member or confined to one area. “The perpetrators aren’t waiting for a time when we’re all neatly in our classrooms,” he says.

Reasonable though that may sound, some experts dispute the merit of the theatrics. “When the school does a fire drill, do they light trash cans on fire?” Keyes asks. “You can practice the actions, create the muscle memory, without some of that drama.” Others call unannounced drills and shooter simulations unnecessary and potentially traumatic. “We don’t spring it on kids,” BVSD’s Sullivan says. “We’re going to make sure the kids aren’t put through undue stress.”

The goal of any of these drills, no matter how amplified, is to train the brain to react given a certain stimulus. In high-stress, high-fear events, cognitive function and manual dexterity can slow down, Kaufman explains. According to decades of research from Lipscomb University’s Robert C. Chandler and others, Kaufman says, drills help people react more effectively in real emergencies so they can get themselves and others away from imminent harm. If the price of that is extra anxiety, so be it—at least, that’s the trade-off the overwhelming majority of schools and school safety experts have clearly chosen to make.

What every kid in America thinks is impossible to ascertain. However, Keyes recalls meeting one high schooler during a training exercise in Nebraska in May 2015. When he asked what she thought about the SRP training, he was encouraged by her answer. “She said, ‘Bad things happen in schools, things that grown-ups don’t want to talk about,’ ” Keyes recalls. “ ‘But I need to have a plan. And I need to know grown-ups have a plan, too.’ ”


This story is part of 5280 Magazine’s special issue dedicated to the 20th anniversary of Columbine. Read more about the project here.


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