“Are you kids good at running and screaming?” a police officer asks a class of elementary school kids in Akron, Ohio.
His friendly tone then turns serious.
“What I don’t want you to do is hide in the corner if a bad guy comes in the room,” he says. “You gotta get moving.”
This training session — shared online by the ALICE Training Institute, a civilian safety training company — reflects the new normal at American public schools. As armed shooters continue their deadly rampages, and while Washington remains stuck on gun control, a new generation of American students have learned to lock and barricade their classroom doors the same way they learn to drop and roll in case of a fire.
The training session is a stark reminder of how American schools have changed since the 1999 Columbine school shooting. School administrators and state lawmakers have realized that a mass shooting can happen in any community, in any school, at any time, and that they need to be prepared if it happens.
Since Columbine, 32 states have passed laws requiring schools to conduct lockdown drills to keep students safe from intruders. Some states went even further after 20 children died in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. Now, six states require specific “active shooter” drills each year. That means the training must be specifically tailored to respond to an armed gunman out to kill. There is no consensus on what these drills should look like, but several states, including Missouri, require shooting simulations with police officers.
In the 2003-’04 school year, when the National Center for Education Statistics began collecting this data, 46.5 percent of all public schools had conducted active shooter drills with students. By 2013-’14, a year after Sandy Hook, that figure had climbed to 70.3 percent. In the most recent data, for 2015-’16, “lockdown drills” — a broader category that NCES used for that year’s survey — were being conducted in 94.6 percent of schools.
“We are working in schools every day with innocent children who see school as a safe place,” said Henderson Lewis, the superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board in Louisiana. “We must do everything we can to prepare our kids for an unfortunate scenario.”
New Orleans schools have been practicing lockdown drills for years, Lewis said, but they need to do much more. He is finalizing a plan to have school safety officers participate in mass shooting drills with police in empty school buildings.
The types of shooting drills vary by state and sometimes by school district. But here’s what this data really means: Each year, nearly every student at an American public school is trained to cower under a desk or run for their lives to avoid being murdered by a gunman.
The limits of lockdown drills
Wednesday’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, has brought renewed attention to gun violence in schools.
Nikolas Cruz, a troubled 19-year-old former student, has been charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder for allegedly opening fire with an AR-15 on students minutes before the final bell rang.
As the shooting was taking place, tweets and video circulating on social media from inside the school showed students under lockdown, barricaded in classrooms, and hiding from the gunman.
The Broward County school district has been holding annual lockdown drills at each school for more than 10 years.
There are basically two types of scenarios they train for. The first is the Code Yellow lockdown. This means teachers must lock doors and can continue teaching but cannot unlock the door until an “all clear” announcement has been broadcast over the intercom five times. When I worked as a crime reporter in Broward County, it was normal for a school to go into a Code Yellow lockdown when police were searching for an armed suspect in the surrounding neighborhoods.
A Code Red lockdown is for a situation like the one that happened in Parkland — where a gunman or intruder is on school grounds. In this scenario, teachers must lock doors, turn off lights, and move students away from windows. No one is allowed to talk or leave the room until the all clear is given. In both lockdown scenarios, teachers and students must ignore all other fire alarms or bells.
It’s unclear at what point school staff issued a lockdown alert at Stoneman Douglas. News reports say Cruz walked onto school grounds unnoticed and pulled the fire alarm a few minutes before classes finished. As students and teachers filed out, he began shooting.
Yet a traditional lockdown drill doesn’t teach students what to do when they come face to face to with a gunman, and that has led to some new approaches.
Drills that teach kids to run or fight back are becoming more common
After the Sandy Hook massacre, federal law enforcement agencies decided to take a closer look at effective ways to respond to school attacks. In one study of 84 mass shootings between 2000 and 2010, about a third (34 percent) involved schools. The FBI analyzed research on mass shootings and school violence and came up with common warning signs that a person might be at risk of undertaking a deadly attack:
- The person experiences a significant personal loss in the weeks or months leading up to the attack, such as a death, breakup, divorce, or job loss.
- The person recently begins collecting or buying multiple weapons; begins or increases target practice and weapons training; or develops a new and “contextually inappropriate” interest in explosives and fascination with previous shootings or mass attacks.
Few offenders had previous arrests for violent crimes.
The FBI’s 2013 report, published with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also urged schools to consider that typical lockdown drills may not enough. They suggested running off school property if possible, or hiding in a locked room if necessary, but even went so far to suggest fighting “the shooter to survive and protect others from harm.”
That was a new idea for schools, and many districts began to take their advice seriously.
The Ohio-based ALICE Training Institute, referenced in the video above, is one of the companies that drills school police officers, teachers, and staff to do more than just hide. They teach students to barricade their classroom doors, run, scream, and throw things at a gunman.
About 4,200 school districts and 3,500 police departments have ALICE-trained personnel, according to the company’s website.
These companies even provide the option of staging elaborate shooting drills, complete with fake blood and masked men with plastic guns (in one instance, involving a different company, a traumatized teacher in Oregon sued the school district for not making clear that it was just a drill).
Shortly after the Newtown massacre, a task force created by the Ohio attorney general’s office released a report encouraging school staff to be more aggressive:
Not everyone has embraced these tactics. There has been concern among school psychologists about the potential negative impact on children who participate in staged shootings. In 2014, the National Association of School Psychologists issued guidelines asserting that lockdown-based drills are ideal, as research shows they can be effective in minimizing injuries. Not much research has been devoted to the “run, hide, fight” approach, they cautioned, and schools should not make active shooter drills mandatory:
This trend is super depressing
All the different views about the best way to train students to respond to mass shootings overlook the sheer insanity that such a conversation is even happening. It’s depressing that the normal policy response to these tragic events has been to stage mass shooting drills at public schools, instead of developing policies focused on making the world less violent.
“We are going through tough times,” said Lewis, the schools superintendent in Louisiana. “The world is changing.”
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