Teachers unions ask: Is it time to rethink school-shooting drills?

School Lockdown Drills
Valley High School students hide under a desk during an active shooter drill in 2018 at the Escondido, Calif., campus.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego-Union-Tribune)

The nation’s two largest teachers unions want schools to revise or eliminate active-shooter drills, asserting Tuesday that they can harm students’ mental health and that there are better ways to prepare for the possibility of a school shooting.

The American Federation of Teachers and National Education Assn. joined with the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund in calling for an end to unannounced drills or drills that simulate gun violence.

“Everywhere I travel, I hear from parents and educators about active-shooter drills terrifying students, leaving them unable to concentrate in the classroom and unable to sleep at night,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Assn. “So traumatizing students as we work to keep students safe from gun violence is not the answer. That is why if schools are going to do drills, they need to take steps to ensure the drills do more good than harm.”


The report released Tuesday recommends schools concentrate on training teachers to respond to an active-shooter incident rather than drilling students.

The issue came into focus in California following the November school shooting at Saugus High in the Santa Clarita Valley. In 16 seconds the 16-year-old shooter killed two students and wounded three others. The range of quick actions among those on campus revealed the school’s detailed active-shooter training and also highlighted the growing debate among school safety experts about how far the drills should go.

Sixteen states, including California, now require or encourage schools to carry out active-shooter drills, according to one analysis, and 95% of schools nationwide conducted a drill in the 2015-16 school year, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The teachers union report included guidelines for schools that decide to use drills. Those include never simulating an actual shooting; giving parents, educators and students advance notice of any drill; working with mental health officials to create age-appropriate and trauma-informed drills; and tracking the effects of drills.

“In Indiana they were shooting teachers with rubber pellets so they would feel the adrenaline of what a school shooting would feel like,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, which is part of Everytown. “In California recently, a superintendent hired a stranger to wear a mask to rattle the doors of classrooms without letting faculty and students know. We’ve seen students asked to pretend to be victims and lie down using fake blood in the hallway.”

Jean-Paul Guilbault, the chief executive of the Alice Training Institute, which runs active-shooter drills, said they are effective when done appropriately. He said his company never runs surprise drills but believes that simulating an event is the best way to prepare for one “and allow students to practice their options, whether that be lockdown or evacuation.”

“According to a recent study conducted by The U.S. Secret Service, most school shootings last for two minutes or less, and nearly half of the events studied ended within one minute,” he said in a written statement. “That means it is up to us to keep ourselves safe for those seconds that will feel as slow as a lifetime. We drill so everyone has a plan when faced with danger, to give people a chance at survival.”


Times staff writer Anita Chabria contributed to this report.