Active shooter drills are meant to keep schools safe, but are they doing harm?

April 24, 2024
Concept photo of a group of somber school children. Image credit: Nicole 
Smith, made with Midjourney

A new national effort to understand how active shooter drills may affect the health and well-being of K-12 students and school staff begins this week with the first meeting of a committee operating under the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Justin Heinze, associate professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, holds a seat on the newly created, 14-member committee made up of experts in firearms, education, campus and public safety, medicine, mental health, law and terrorism—all working on a consensus study to understand how schools and public safety officials across the country conduct drills and which may be most effective and least harmful.

Heinze, co-director of U-M’s National Center for School Safety, is eager to provide schools and the public a deeper understanding of the effects of a now-normal part of going to school in America.

“A critical eye must be turned toward how these drills are conducted and how they prepare students and staff for potential emergencies without causing undue stress or trauma,” he said. “Over 90% of students in the U.S. will participate in some form of active shooter training this year, making them one of the most common forms of safety measures schools put in place.”

With an alarming frequency of active shooter incidents in schools, active shooter and lockdown safety drills have become a necessary but sometimes controversial experience in schools, Heinze said.

The committee’s role is to dissect various components of the drills: examine how they impact different age groups and populations, including students with disabilities, Black and Latino children, dual-language learners and children with special needs, determine how to minimize adverse health effects and recommend what expertise is needed from school support systems to implement and evaluate drill best practices.

The intent of the committee is to conduct a study looking at the potential long- and short-term effects of active shooter drills and assess their implications for students and school staff and provide recommendations.

Heinze has an extensive background in educational psychology and leadership in violence prevention research in school settings and communities.

He leads two National Institute of Justice funded interventions on school safety and a Center for Disease Control-funded evaluation of threat identification systems such as anonymous reporting systems within school communities. He also is lead for the Public Health IDEAS for Preventing Firearm Injuries at the School of Public Health and the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention Research Core.

“The problem is that we don’t know enough about how well drills prepare school communities for an emergency or their psychological effect on students and staff, particularly on some of our most vulnerable student populations, such as very young children and students learning with disabilities,” Heinze said.

“With no national standards and limited guidance, in general, for how drills should be conducted, this committee will consider existing research evidence, input from experts and lived experience of students to provide recommendations for policy and practice to promote safer schools while also limiting potential adverse effects that drills can have.”

The initial goals of the National Academies’ effort is to understand:

  • The possible mental, emotional and behavioral health effects, long- or short-term, on students and school staff from involvement in active shooter/lockdown drills and related school security measures such as metal detectors and police presence.
  • The potential effects on students with disabilities, Black and Latino children, dual-language learners and children with special needs as well as those belonging to different age groups.
  • The components, criteria and/or features of active shooter/lockdown drills and best practices and procedures before and after drills that can promote resiliency and minimize adverse mental, emotional and behavioral health effects on children, youth and school staff.
  • What supports, school programs and staff expertise are needed in order to implement, monitor and evaluate the best practices identified.

The committee will meet in closed session April 25 and 26 except for 11 a.m.-noon April 25, when the public can join a live webcast. Renee Bradley of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education, and Ruth Ryder, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Policy and Programs, U.S. Department of Education, will address the committee during the open session.