School shooting drills ‘scare more than they prepare’

It’s been one year since a gunman killed 17 people and wounded 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

On this anniversary, Press Play looks at whether school shooting drills work. They’re supposed to prepare students for what might happen if a gunman attacks.

Here’s an “active shooter" training video in New Jersey:

But more educators and psychologists now argue that these drills aren’t effective, and they can traumatize students.

Sarah Daly, Criminology Professor at Saint Vincent College, and author of author of “Everyday School Violence,” takes issue with the mock gunshots in today’s shooting drills. Daly, who focuses on school violence and mass shootings, is also a former high school teacher.

Many of the students she worked with lived in violent-prone urban areas, and she says the sound of gunshots could have been traumatic for them.  

James Alan Fox, Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University in Boston, says these shooting drills “scare more than they prepare,” and there’s no evidence that kids will remember the lessons if a real shooting happens, when their adrenaline is pumping.

He also has a problem with schools doing these drills unannounced. He recalls that last year in Parkland, when the shooting occurred, some teachers were confused about whether it was real or a drill -- surprise drills happened previously.

He compares the training to flying. “There's a certain chance of a crash on the airplane. But we don't go through a drill. We just assume that the crew has been trained, and will listen up if something bad happens. And that's really what should happen is schools: train the teachers, train the administrators, train the cops. Leave the children out of it, and just tell them if something bad happens, listen to an adult.”

In Parkland, the shooter reportedly knew the drills, and used them to plan his moves.

“If a student plans to or wants to perpetrate an attack at the school, they're going to be privy to all these plans. So we can't discount the notion that we're essentially giving away the game plan, so that people can be better at doing what they want to do,” says Daly.

Slightly more than half of shooters are from the schools they target, and many are former students, explains Fox. He says schools represent, for someone angry at society, a place where they can get vengeance.

Fox points out that the drama of the drill can be invigorating for some students who might have violent tendencies, who might fantasize about a shooting happening on their campus.

Fox says we fuel the contagion effect: “We’re constantly obsessing over school shootings and school violence, and surrounding our kids with armed guards, and doing these drills. It sends a message to kids that the bad guy is out to get you, you've got a bull's eye on your back… It sends the wrong message to kids. Schools are safe. In fact, many kids, it's safer than any place else they can be -- even their home.”

Fox says that we need resources to make schools safer. “We should not be spending money on hiring ex-military as guards. We should not be spending money on hi-tech surveillance systems. We should be spending money on more teachers, guidance counselors, and psychologists who will get to know the students.”

Fox also advocates unobtrusive security measures, such as bullet-resistant glass or landscaping that would create natural barriers. “Or for example, some schools have these acoustic sensors that are so tiny, kids don't even know that there. But if there is a shooting, it immediately alerts the local police -- not just the fact that there's a shooting on campus -- but where exactly in this school that shooter is.”

Daly adds that law enforcement can go onto campuses after school hours or on weekends -- to familiarize themselves with schools’ layout and prepare teachers. “There's a lot of time for preparation and collaboration when the school is empty, and when we're not going to potentially traumatize kids, which could have negative effects on their learning and their development.”

So why do schools keep doing these drills? Fox says it’s because the “parents yell louder” and pressure school administrators.

“The interesting thing is these same parents who want their kids to go to school in a fortress-like environment with armed guards, they wouldn't want to have that in their office building,” he says.

Daly says it’s a natural instinct for parents to want to protect their kids. But she thinks researchers need to do a better job of getting out information when it comes to what’s effective.  

Fox says part of the problem is we often hear that school shootings are up. “There are actually fewer now than there were in the late 1990s. We talk about 55 million school children. On average, about six were killed each year by gunfire. It's not an epidemic. It is not growing. The only thing growing is the fear and the over-response.”

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Yael Even Or



  • Sarah Daly - Criminology Professor at Saint Vincent College, who focuses on school violence and mass shootings; former teacher; author of “Everyday School Violence”
  • James Alan Fox - Professor of Criminology, Law & Public Policy, Northeastern University