Are active shooter drills worth it?

Originally published in Vox.com on May 28, 2022.
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When one Robb Elementary teacher heard gunfire explode down the hall, she shouted for her kids to get under the desks as she sprinted to lock the classroom door. “They’ve been practicing for this day for years,” the teacher told NBC. “They knew this wasn’t a drill. We knew we had to be quiet or else we were going to give ourselves away.”

Lockdown drills (or “active shooter drills”) have become standard fare in American public schools, used in more than 95 percent of schools and mandated in more than 40 states. But despite their ubiquity, there’s no federal guidance on exactly how these drills should run, creating significant variation — and controversy — across the country.

For-profit companies with big marketing budgets sell their own preparedness programs to schools, despite limited evidence for the effectiveness of these companies’ approach. Some students have reported feeling traumatized after the drills, though others say it gives them a relative sense of empowerment. In recent years, anecdotes have emerged of overzealous tactics, like shooting teachers with plastic pellets, simulating gunfire, and using fake blood.

While reporters continue to stitch together the specifics of what went down at Robb Elementary, it’s clear that the school went into lockdown — teachers locked classroom doors, turned out lights, and moved the class out of sight from the hallway and remained quiet.

In the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, all schools use the Standard Response Protocol for lockdowns, a set of clear instructions promoted by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, which parents launched in 2006 after their daughter was killed in a Colorado school shooting. The protocol instructs teachers to lock doors and ensure students stay out of sight and stay quiet.

A fourth grader who survived the shooting told the CBS affiliate KENS of San Antonio that when he heard the shooting, he urged his friend to hide under something. “I was hiding hard,” the child said. “And I was telling my friend to not talk because [the shooter] is going to hear us.”

These experiences suggest the lockdown drills really did help students and staff respond effectively. Evidence so far suggests children and educators in Uvalde followed their lockdown training well, and it was local police who failed to follow protocol. For now, most experts say if we’re stuck living in a society where school shootings are threats communities must deal with, then schools should plan for drills but be more conscious of how they’re executed, and take steps to mitigate needless harm.

The case for lockdown drills

More schools began practicing lockdown drills after the 1999 high school massacre in Columbine, Colorado, but the number ticked up quickly following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Even though youth homicides are far less likely to occur in schools than other locations, school leaders and politicians face immense pressure to proactively respond to these frightening incidents.

Research has suggested that lockdown drills are important tools, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, who studies school lockdown drills. One reason is that the more a school practices, the better students and staff get at remembering to execute all the steps.

“This is particularly important as [emergency] drills … are designed to build muscle memory, which allows a person to perform certain functions in chaotic situations, such as an active attacker, when their mind is still trying to process what is taking place,” she wrote in a 2020 paper. Other research has found disaster trainings help students develop skills, and the National Association of School Psychologists has also endorsed lockdown drills as a way to prepare for emergencies.

Schildkraut’s findings indicate that staff and students who participate in lockdown drills feel more prepared and more empowered for an emergency. The trade-off, she found, is that students also felt less safe in school — potentially as a result of having to think about the risk they might one day face.

Some critics have said it’s not necessary to subject young students to the drills when they could just listen to their teachers’ instructions in the event of an emergency. A common comparison is flying on an airplane; passengers are directed on where to turn for information if there is a crisis, but they are not required to practice the emergency protocols before their flight takes off.

Schildkraut said a difference is that teachers are often the first people to be killed in a school shooting. “You can’t remove the only people with the information and then expect anyone else to do it,” she told me. “Everyone has to have the tools to stay safe in the moment.”

Supporters of lockdown preparedness also point to the Parkland, Florida, shooting in 2018, where students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had received no active shooter training and the school had no established lockdown procedures.

This lack of training, experts say, was one reason teachers and students on the third floor of Marjory Stoneman Douglas had evacuated their classrooms when they heard a fire alarm. (The alarm had been set off by discharge coming from the shooter’s gun.) When the shooter reached the third floor, he murdered five students in the hallway and one teacher who was holding their classroom door open.

But little federal guidance exists on best practices for lockdown drills, despite repeated calls for such assistance. In 2013, federal agencies endorsed a controversial practice known as “Run, Hide, Fight,” encouraging school staff unable to hide or run in an active shooter incident to try to “incapacitate” the perpetrator with “aggressive force” or nearby items like fire extinguishers. The federal training did not clarify how and if educators should practice such tactics.

In the final report of the Federal Commission on School Safety established after Parkland, the authors recommended federal agencies develop guidelines for active shooter trainings, but to date those have not materialized. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security did not return request for comment; a spokesperson for the Department of Education provided links to guidance on active shooter and emergency events, but not to drills specifically.

A suite of companies and consultants have stepped into the breach, touting so-called “options-based” approaches they claim are superior to traditional drills. These include training staff in more tactics, like barricading doors or even actively confronting an armed shooter. The most recognized player in this space is Alice, the largest for-profit provider of active shooting training in the US. Armed with big marketing budgets, the company can travel across the country to promote its model, even with limited research available to support it.

“There’s no requirement on what model to use, and right now it’s everyone trying to figure it out,” Schildkraut said.

How lockdown drills can cause harm

Given the steady stream of anecdotal news stories about active shooter drills inspiring child fear and even employee injury lawsuits, advocates have urged more attention on whether lockdown drills provoke trauma or are even necessary. Psychologists say establishing drill standards is especially important for children, whose brains and coping strategies are still developing. Others urge more focus on preventive safety strategies, like improving mental health supports and developing anonymous tip lines for students.

Scant high-quality research exists on the mental health risks of lockdown drills, though in 2021, Georgia Tech researchers, in partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety, published a study analyzing social media posts before and after the drills in 114 schools across 33 states.

The researchers found the drills associated with increases in depression, stress, anxiety, and physiological health problems for students, teachers, and parents, and suggested leaders rethink schools’ reliance on them. “We provide the first empirical evidence that school shooter drills — in their current, unregulated state — negatively impact the psychological well-being of entire school communities,” the authors wrote.

Other experts say the drills may even be counterproductive, given that most school shooters tend to be current or former students of those schools. The drills might spark “socially contagious” behavior, some critics warn, or deter school leaders from making other proactive safety investments.

Alice’s methods, which include alarming simulations, have drawn particular scrutiny. But in December 2021, when a shooter murdered four students at Oxford High School in Michigan, leaders noted they had prepared for such an attack using an Alice drill two months prior. The CEO of Alice claimed Oxford would have seen dozens more deaths without the training.

One study published in 2020, led by a criminal justice professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, found roughly one in 10 students reported experiencing a negative psychological outcome following an Alice training, but over 85 percent of students said they either had no change in feeling or felt more prepared, confident, or safe. The professor who led that research — Cheryl Lero Jonson — published a study in 2018 arguing that “options-based” approaches like Alice were “more effective civilian response[s]” to active shooter incidents than traditional school lockdown drills. Critics note Lero Jonson is a certified Alice instructor and say her findings were not sufficiently independent.

Schildkraut, who primarily studies the Standard Response Protocol method, told me she would not feel comfortable saying if one model is better or worse, but that she does feel advocates of Alice-like approaches mislead the public when they suggest traditional lockdown drills don’t involve choices.

“When we train students, we don’t say this is your only option. If you’re in an open area or by an exit door, your best option is to get out of the building,” she said. “The reason why there’s a heavier focus on the lockdown as an option [and the ‘L’ in Alice stands for lockdown] is because kids remember things in a very linear fashion, and the best thing a student can do is shut the door and get out of the way.”

How to mitigate drill harm

To reduce the risk of trauma, a growing number of experts and advocates have stepped up to issue recommendations for lockdown drills.

In August 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced its opposition to high-intensity active shooter drills, issuing recommendations including to eliminate deception in the exercises, and to incorporate student input in their design. The AAP recommended making accommodations for students who may have had prior traumatic experiences or are otherwise at higher risk for negative reaction.

A month later, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Everytown for Gun Safety issued their own recommendations for school safety drills, including removing students from them altogether. If students do have to participate, the teachers unions and Everytown suggest giving parents notice, eliminating simulations that mimic an actual shooting, and using age-appropriate language developed in partnership with school-based mental health staff.

In May 2021, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers, and Safe and Sound Schools released their own new guidance on school lockdown drills, recommending, among other things, getting parental permission and training staff to recognize trauma signs.

And this year, partly motivated by the new Georgia Tech research, lawmakers in Washington state passed a bill prohibiting school lockdown drills from involving lifelike simulations or reenactments that are not “trauma-informed and age and developmentally appropriate.” The law takes effect in June.

Researchers say more high-quality studies are needed to understand the long-term impacts of lockdown drills and to develop more standardized approaches that could minimize risk. More leadership from the federal government would help.

On the 2020 Murder Spike and What This Means for 2021

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 9, 2021
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As millions of vaccinated people emerge from lockdown, returning to shops, bars and restaurants, American life is kicking back into high gear. And in the United States in 2021, that means elected officials and crime experts are bracing for an unusually deadly summer marked by wanton gun violence. 

But the reasons for and locations of the likely surge in shootings, a trend that began before but has accelerated during the pandemic, are more complicated than the effects of lockdowns or traditional seasonal shifts in urban crime patterns. Instead, experts say, everything from a flood of fentanyl and open-air drug markets to surging gun violence in rural areas and small towns could make for a remarkable season of tragedy.


Homicides generally spike every summer, but 2020 saw a spike of shootings and murders that far outpaced even the typical surge. One analysis from the Council on Criminal Justice, a research and policy group, found a 30 percent increase in homicides across 34 U.S. cities compared to 2019, and Jeff Asher, an independent crime analyst, found murder up 37 percent across 57 localities. An analysis of gun-violence data by Everytown, a gun-control advocacy group, suggests 2020 had the highest rate of gun deaths in the last 20 years.

Other types of crime, including rape and robberies, seemed to drop in 2020, likely due in part to stay-at-home orders. But homicides and shootings were already increasing between 2014 and 2019, meaning even a return to 2019 murder levels wouldn’t indicate crime is on a good track. 

“After 2014, shootings went up, and they continued to go up, and they accelerated wildly last year,” said John Roman, a crime researcher with the University of Chicago. “Why is that? We don’t know, but the thinking that it’s suddenly going to stop strikes me as wishful thinking. The best [crime] predictor of what happens this year is what happened last year.”

One challenge in interpreting crime data in general—and making sense of the 2020 surge in particular—is the slow pace at which it is published. National news outlets have run many stories highlighting the murder wave in large U.S. cities, painting a picture of spikes that are unique to those generally liberal, urban areas. “The U.S. saw significant crime rise across major cities in 2020 [a]nd it’s not letting up,” read one CNN headline from April typifying the genre. 

But one reason reporters tend to focus on crime in large cities is because they have the capacity to publish more frequent crime statistics, whereas other smaller towns and rural areas don’t or choose not to. 

The grim reality is that while murder spikes were most pronounced in large cities, shootings and homicides were up significantly across all U.S jurisdictions last year. Preliminary FBI data from nearly 13,000 law enforcement agencies found cities with 25,000 people or less saw 25 percent increases in murder last year, and mid-sized cities had increases ranging from 24-31 percent. Final FBI data will be published in September.

“Even in the suburbs and rural areas it was up 15 percent,” Asher told The Daily Beast. “Crime fell last year in America, but murder rose historically.”

So what are the most plausible explanations? One likely factor is a jump in the number of guns in America, which somehow has gotten even more out of hand. FBI data suggests nearly 40 million guns were sold last year, a 40 percent increase from 2019. New data from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found roughly 20 percent of those who bought guns last year were first-time gun owners. 

The research also found 39 percent of American households now own guns, up from 32 percent five years earlier. 

“Gun crime usually occurs between people who know each other, and if you talk to cops, they’ll tell you that there are more than the traditional players who are now carrying guns,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

The research literature is clear, added Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University: more guns mean more gun deaths. Whether that means the huge increase in 2020 gun sales is the best explanation for spiking gun violence is less clear. 

“Honestly we don’t know, though we should know soon,” Webster said, pointing to the forthcoming data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF), which traces crime to specific guns. “Once that data comes out, we’ll be able to see in a fairly direct way: were those gun sales used quickly in crime, or is this just a coincidence.”

Webster said his main concern going forward is that more guns, combined with more guns in public places because states are making it easier to carry firearms legally, coupled with more illegally-carried guns due to a loosely regulated secondary gun market, all increase the chance for violence. “As a public health epidemiologist, basically what that translates to is more exposure to guns, more people in more places with firearms, and even though the vast majority are going to be safe and not harm themselves or others, some portion will,” he said.

The pandemic itself stands as another likely explanation for the increase in shootings and homicides. And, indeed, this overlaps with the increase in gun sales, as purchases spiked in the early months of the pandemic, even before police-violence protests stoked fears of unrest. The pandemic weakened community institutions that experts say typically help deter crime. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist and criminologist at Princeton, has said the corresponding disconnection from places like schools and pools and rec centers all help increase the conditions that may lead to violent behavior.

Roman at the University of Chicago, too, has argued that the disruption of routine activities for large numbers of young men in poor areas likely contributed to violence with other young men in similar situations. But he told The Daily Beast that the infusion of federal stimulus funds to state and local governments should help support those institutions and individuals who help keep people from committing crime and being victim to crime, including therapists and social workers, and libraries and pools.

A less plausible explanation for the rise in homicides, though one that gets quite a bit of airtime on cable news, is the so-called de-policing theory, which suggests police have scaled back their work in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Dating to at least 2014, the suggestion has been that police are either doing their jobs less well because of low morale from being criticized, or simply being less proactive in the field out of fear of discipline or even criminal punishment. Some pundits have pointed to cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, which saw stark increases in homicides last year, as evidence that activist pressure to “defund the police” is driving the murder surge.

But even some law-enforcement leaders acknowledge the weaknesses of the defund theory.

Laura Cooper, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents police executives in the U.S. and Canada, told The Daily Beast that the defund the police movement “has not been pervasive” across their membership cities. And, she noted, “in a lot of places, they’ve actually increased police budgets.” Cooper added their data shows violent crime has increased, even in the first quarter of 2021, regardless of whether cities increased or decreased their police budgets. 

That’s not to say tensions with the police have had no relationship to crime levels. If police are perceived as illegitimate, then community members tend to be less likely to cooperate or assist cops in investigations. “If you ask police chiefs what will make a difference, they will tell you that the most important thing is regaining public trust with the community,” said Wexler. “It sounds sort of fuzzy, but it’s not.”


One likely explanation for 2020 gun violence that gets less airtime is the opioid crisis and the corresponding explosion of open-air drug markets. Preliminary CDC data suggests more than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, a 29 percent increase from 2019. Black Americans were disproportionately affected, and the drug overdoses were driven largely by fentanyl and other opioids.

Roman said the fentanyl crisis could help explain some of the geographic spillover in shootings and homicides we’re seeing. “Open-air drug markets are the ultimate recipe for violence,” he said. “You have dealers fighting over customers, customers fighting with dealers, wholesale networks on top of that competing for market share. New beefs, turf wars, gangs.”

Roman thinks one reason politicians focus less on opioids is because it’s just a massive problem that defies demographic realities, and has no obvious solution. “But it’s pretty myopic,” he said. “We have this huge [opioid] problem we all know about it. And we’ve decided it isn’t related to this other murder problem that takes place in the exact same space.”

Webster of Johns Hopkins agrees the role of drugs and illegal drug markets is “an under-examined” factor. 

“The increase that we’re seeing in overdose deaths really is a signal that obviously drug markets are very active places,” he said. “So I actually suspect that there is a connection, though what we do about is a far more challenging question.” Webster believes drug markets are a less-studied factor because they’re just harder to measure, and “we get too comfortable” with other explanations, like policing and anger over it. 

The first few months of 2021 have shown few signs of improvement in terms of shootings and homicides. One analysis from Asher of 37 cities suggested murders were up 18 percent over the same period last year, and gun sales have continued apace

As the public and elected officials grapple with these and forthcoming crime statistics, there will be a familiar pressure to respond by increasing police budgets, even though policing is more of an indirect response to violence. Indeed, in the New York City mayoral race, three leading candidates have all backed more resources for cops even as rivals call for the NYPD to be defunded. 

But if spending more on police can have a marginal benefit in crime reduction, as the country learned from its largest protest wave in history, it can also help provoke backlash and long-term community harm. 

“I think the story is pretty simple and we make it pretty complicated,” said Roman. “The reason you get a gun is because you’re afraid of someone using that gun against you. What we can do is change how fearful people are of other people with guns. That’s really the only way out. It’s the difficult path, and it’s not clear how much of that runs through traditional policing.” 

Why Focusing on Mass Shootings Won’t End Gun Violence in America

Originally published in VICE on October 12, 2015.
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Earlier this month, a 26-year-old student at an Oregon community college fatally shot nine people and injured nine others on campus. Soon after, the shooter killed himself. What came next was a sadly familiar story: The president delivered a national speech, liberal politicians vowed to pass comprehensive gun control, conservative leaders—who are still generally opposed to Medicaid expansion—insisted that mental health care would have prevented the shooting. And of course some Serious Public Figures found ways to shift the conversation away from popular reforms like universal background checks to oddities like arming teachers or how the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if only Jews had more guns.

On Friday, the national news media reported on two more campus shootings, one in Arizona and the other in Texas. But these same outlets paid little or no attention to the two mass shootings that happened in Baltimore this month: On October 10, five people were shot near a strip mall, and several days later, another five people were shot near an elementary school.

This disparity in coverage showcases how a few high-profile shootings can dominate the discourse around gun deaths in harmful ways, as the public focuses on extreme events rather than the everyday tragedy of firearm-related suicides, homicides, and accidents.

“The Oregon shootings fit a pattern of gun violence that still shocks us… mainstream, middle class America can picture itself in a community college classroom in Oregon or in a movie theater in Colorado or an elementary school in Connecticut,” wrote the Baltimore Sun editorial board. “But when it happens on a street corner in Baltimore, we—even many of us who live here—are conditioned to gloss over it. The idea that these are things that happened to someone else, maybe even to someone who had it coming, has by now become so deeply ingrained in us.”

Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowd-sourced database project started in 2013, reports that there have been nine mass shootings in Baltimore in 2015, 13 in Chicago, six in Detroit, five in St. Louis, three in Los Angeles, and four in Philadelphia. The database defines “mass shooting” as any instance where four or more people are shot in one event. (Other organizations define mass shootings as instances where there have been at least four fatalities, building off the FBI’s definition of “mass murder.”)

Shira Goodman, executive director of the gun control advocacy group CeasefirePA, says it can be especially difficult for families living in crime-ridden urban communities to have their experiences go overlooked or underreported. “The gun violence they experience gets written about on the back pages of the paper, or Section B, and it’s just a couple of lines, but for those families, their lives have been irrevocably changed and devastated,” she tells VICE.

Goodman adds that she believes the mass shootings which draw national attention serve as important “teaching moments” and have helped to engage those who aren’t living directly in impacted communities. “I think people do get drawn in for different reasons, which is good, but we have to be very mindful that we are working in all parts of the country, be it cities, suburbs, rural areas—gun violence really is an American problem.”

For public policy experts, though, the fact that national discussions around gun violence seem to reawaken only after mass shootings—not counting those in urban cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago, of course—is incredibly frustrating. Tens of thousands of people die in America every year from gunfire, homicide, and suicide, and mass shootings are responsible for just a fraction of those deaths.

In fact, a growing body of research suggests that the sort of mass shootings that make headlines are statistical aberrations. Many of these cases seem to involved young, mentally ill, isolated white men who unleash their rage on random civilians. But a study published this year in the American Journal of Public Health found that “surprisingly little population-level evidence supports the notion that individuals diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes.” The study cites past research showing about 85 percent of shootings occur within social networks, and that just 3 to 5 percent involve mentally ill shooters. As co-authors Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish put it, “People are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends, enemies, or acquaintances than they are by lone violent psychopaths.”

Which begs the question: If mentally-ill loners aren’t the only problem, and mass shootings aren’t the cause of most gun deaths, how can this plague of violence be addressed?

“Can gun laws address mass shootings? Honestly, we don’t have the best data to answer that in a definitive, scientific way,” says Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Such shootings occur too infrequently to allow for sound statistical modeling. “But the only time we talk about gun policy is with mass shootings. We ask, ‘Could this have prevented the Oregon shooter?’ That’s perhaps an interesting question we could ponder, but how relevant is that to the 33,000 killed and another 75,000 treated with gunfire every year?”

While Webster and other experts tend to agree that expanding access to mental health care is an important public health imperative, to say that doing so would dramatically reduce gun violence is not consistent with the evidence.

For Webster, a more relevant question is how could we move to pass expanded background checks on gun sales—a policy that 85 percent of Americans support, including 88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans. “Ben Carson and all the Republican candidates are talking about this issue in a way that’s totally disconnected to the much, much larger problem of gun violence,” Webster adds, referring to Carson’s claim that Nazi gun control laws paved the way for the genocide of Europe’s Jews. “For those who don’t want to anger the gun lobby, they change the subject.”

In other words, every time Americans talk about taking away guns from the public, or loopy proposals like arming ordinary people to prevent mass tragedies, they lose focus on legit proposals that might enjoy bipartisan support.

Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California in Los Angeles who focuses on drug abuse and crime control policy, says he, too, has grown impatient with the gun control debate, “because it ignores all the ways not related to guns specifically that we can reduce gun violence.” What nearly half of all homicides do share, Kleiman argues, is that those who are under the influence of alcohol commit them. And research finds that the risk of homicide, suicide, and violent death significantly increases with chronic heavy drinking.

To reduce annual homicides, Kleiman supports increasing the tax on alcohol, as intoxication has proven to be a much greater risk factor for gun violence than mental illness. Heavy drinkers, who are particularly prone to violence, consume more than four out of five alcoholic drinks. Doubling the alcohol tax, Kleiman says, could reduce annual murders by 3 percent. Tripling it, which would cost the median drinker less than 20 cents a day, could reduce it by 6 percent. “That’s 800 annual homicides we just wouldn’t have,” Kleiman says.

While Obama pushed for increased funding for gun research after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, there are still huge gaps in data about guns deaths. A ban on federally funded research into firearms, pushed by the NRA in 1996, has greatly limited the amount of studies conducted around guns over the past two decades. The ban had a chilling effect on not only state and federal agencies, but also academic researchers. The Washington Post reported in January that many private nonprofits have also avoided funding gun-related research proposals.

I asked Kleiman if he thought we’ve made any progress in the national debate since Sandy Hook in December 2012. “No, I don’t think anything has changed,” he said. “This is not an issue that will break through the polarization. Being in favor of gun control is a blue issue, and being against it is red.”

Kleiman says Democrats should focus all their political energy on passing universal background checks, and quit focusing on policies that “fetishize” guns like assault weapon bans. The president is reportedly exploring how he could pass more gun control reforms through executive action, but his options seem limited.

“An outright ban on guns is not politically possible and it’s not constitutionally possible,” says Webster. “Talking about disarming an entire population is nonsense. Let’s talk about the actual issue.”