Realistic school shooter drills: Necessary today or too traumatizing?

Some parents and experts question use of intense training, but others say students must be prepared.

The sounds of gunfire in the halls of Franklin High School. Lessons for students to use trauma first aid kits at Northmont Middle School. Teachers lined up and shot with plastic pellets at an elementary school in Indiana.

Some schools have been conducting increasingly realistic active shooter drills, concerning some parents and mental health professionals who question if these practice scenarios unnecessarily scare children.

RELATED: Coping with stress, regulating emotion a growing focus for schools

“We have to realize that school shootings are high impact but low probability occurrences,” said Ken Trump, a Cleveland-based school safety expert with 30 years of experience advising educators. “When you start doing over-the-top drills and scenarios that traumatize kids … we have to ask ourselves, why are we doing this? What is the threat?”

The Daily Daily News' Path Forward initiative investigates solutions to the region's most pressing issues, including youth mental health. For this story, the newspaper teamed up with News Center 7 to investigate if these elaborate school shooter exercises do more harm than good.

Some school leaders and parents defend the intense training as necessary for safety in today’s world.

“They need to know what to do,” said Tonya Avila on Facebook. “Thinking it through in your head is one thing but being in the actual scenario is another.”

PHOTOS: Northmont active shooter drill

“We had atomic bomb drills when I was in school. So I don’t see why this is a problem,” said Luann Earnhart Caudill. “If a threat can occur, then we should be as prepared as possible.”

Franklin sophomore Samantha Earnhart knew her school was holding a drill in October involving firing blank bullets. But she still jumped and became upset when the simulated shots began.

“It was very emotional. I started to cry,” she said. “It’s a really horrible situation if that were to actually happen.”

Six students had to be escorted out during the exercise, the district said.

READ MORE: Dayton schools’ mental health services expansion hits delays

The school prepared students and parents ahead of time, Franklin Principal Kelli Fromm said, and had counselors on hand to debrief them after the drill.

“We would not have done this if we didn’t think our students couldn’t handle it,” Fromm said.

And some students who were scared like Earnhart said they also see value in practicing.

“I definitely feel a lot more confident that I’m safe,” she said.

Drills becoming routine

School shootings in the region include a student bringing a gun to Madison Junior/Senior High School in Butler County in 2016 and wounding four classmates; a 17-year-old student bringing a shotgun to West Liberty-Salem High School in Logan County in 2017 and wounding one classmate; and a student taking a gun to Dennis Middle School in Richmond, Indiana, in December, exchanging gunfire with police before taking his own life.

Ohio’s deadliest school shooting occurred in 2012, when three students were killed at Chardon High School.

School shootings get a lot of media attention but are very rare.

“We hear about every single one that happens so we feel like it’s happening all of the time,” said Julie Stucke, a child psychologist at Dayton Children’s. “But the chance of any one child being involved in a school shooting is really minimal.”

DETAILS: Youth mental health work ‘more important than ever’ after tornadoes, shooting

A Harvard University professor who studies risk estimated the likelihood of a public school student being killed by a gun in school at about 1 in 614 million. Accidents and suicide kill many more children each year.

Despite those statistics, school shootings worry many parents. A 2018 Ball State University survey found that 36 percent of Midwestern parents believe their local high school is “highly likely” to have a shooting, gun threat or armed student incident in the next three years.

The Pew Research Center found 63 percent of parents of teens fear a shooting at their child's school. And kids aren't immune to that fear. A total of 57 percent of teens surveyed by Pew said they worry about a shooting at their school, with 25 percent saying they are "very worried."

That anxiety is what concerns some parents and experts about some of the intense, realistic shooting drills.

“Will it help in the event of an actual active shooter? I kind of doubt it,” said Dylan Bugher of Greenville. “Firing off the blanks will have no real effect other than scaring the kids and making them fear something that will very likely not happen. It will do little more than add stress to their life.”

Increased anxiety

Stucke has worked as a child psychologist for 21 years, during which time school shootings incidents have only increased.

“So I’ve seen more anxiety coming from kids who are worried about that happening in their school,” she said.

Frequent drills can enhance that anxiety, she said, because kids believe it’s more likely to happen than it actually is.

MORE COVERAGE: ‘Kids coming to school with more trauma:’ Here’s what local schools are doing

“Schools have to walk a very fine line,” she said. Lockdown drills have been around for awhile and most kids are used to those. “It’s when you get into these more elaborate drills that this is what’s really traumatizing kids, and from what I understand, some of the teachers.”

She’s heard of kids texting their parents goodbye during drills they thought were real. Kids with a history of domestic violence in their homes or other trauma are also more prone to be anxious and scared during scenarios involving gunfire or other loud noises, she said.

“I don’t think they need these kinds of drills,” Stucke said. “From everything that I have read, there is no research that suggests these kinds of drills are any more effective than just educating people verbally or through writing.”

If a child comes home feeling scared after an active shooter drill, she recommends talking to them about how they felt. Stucke also advised to monitor if that anxiety subsides or if it lingers and affects their sleep or other behaviors. If so, seek professional help.

Instead of the intense drills, Stucke recommended hiring more school counselors. More mental health resources would help educators identify students who are more at risk for isolation and violence, she said.

“If you can have more counselors in the school focusing on suicide prevention, it might be a better use of the money,” Stucke said.

The most recent Ohio budget included $675 million for schools to increase wrap-around services including mental health resources. All public schools in Ohio this school year were eligible for up to $2,500 in school safety grants from the attorney general’s office, which could be used to conduct drills, enhance the physical security of buildings or increase mental health training for staff.

Trump, the school safety expert, said active shooter drills are some of the only training for the public that has moved from simply talking through a plan to elaborate, realistic scenarios. Fire drills don’t typically involve an actual fire, he said, and flight attendants don’t get attacked by a fake hijacker when giving you safety information on planes.

“It’s well intended by these school officials,” Trump said. “But it’s a very flawed thinking on their part that is inconsistent with research.”

Lockdown the gold standard

Ohio Department of Education rules require schools to conduct at least three school security drills per year, including at least one lockdown. Additionally, staff and local emergency personnel must practice each district’s emergency management plan once a year with a “full-scale” test every three years.

The law says student involvement in full-scale drills is optional.

DETAILS: Half of psychiatrists can retire right now, leaving critical shortage

“Administrators should consider what benefit student inclusion in the emergency management test may have on the student population in preparation for an emergency and to enhance the safety of students in the building. Schools should obtain parental consent if students are to be included in the emergency management test. Schools should also consider age-appropriate participation, guidance, and training in preparation for participation in the test,” according to the Ohio Administrative Code.

A drill at Northmont Local Schools last year that featured the sound of gunfire and trauma first aid training was above and beyond the state requirements at the request of students, Superintendent Tony Thomas said.

“Northmont schools have run a variety of drills with different scenarios to meet these requirements and student feedback from our high school students have indicated they want more training and drills to be better prepared,” he said.

The feedback after the drill was very positive, he said.

“Mental health professionals were included with the planning and implementation of the drill and staff were prepared in advance,” Thomas said. “The school held a debriefing time at the end of the training day by meeting with students in small groups and providing staff with advance preparation of guiding questions and supports.”

Two popular programs taught by law enforcement and private security companies nationwide are ALICE (Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Run-Hide-Fight model.

They both involve the potential last resort step of fighting an assailant. Neither were necessarily designed with children in mind.

READ MORE: How Children’s Hospital new $12M mental health unit uses technology to save lives

Homeland Security materials on Run-Hide-Fight all feature adults and focus on offices or other public spaces. ALICE’s website has a separate section with a book and workbook for kids that stresses listening to adult commands, helping barricade a door or going to a safe spot when applicable.

In his role as community engagement officer with the Dayton Police Department, Chris Pawelski has conducted active shooter safety training for businesses and some teachers throughout the region.

His class uses the Run-Hide-Fight model, but it’s been boiled down to an hour session in a classroom. That’s what most employers have time for, he said, and people can remember the lessons without an elaborate scenario that is cost- and time-intensive.

“People just wouldn’t show up,” he said of four-hour ALICE training. Run-Hide-Fight is easier to remember and has the effectiveness of “Stop, drop and roll.”

“I can remember that training and I’ve never had to use it,” he said. While the three words are also easier for kids to remember, Pawelski’s team hasn’t used their training model with any local students.

RELATED: Why youth mental health is one of the Miami Valley’s biggest issues

“Lockdown has been and remains the gold standard (for schools),” Trump said.

His firm recommends two to three drills per school year, conducted at different times of the day. Students need to know what to do if an emergency occurs while they are in the lunchroom, heading to the bus or passing between classes, Trump said.

“The vast majority of schools continue to focus on lockdown and are not doing over-the-top, options-based training,” he said. “The schools that have been doing it are starting to step back and parents are starting to push back.”

It’s absolutely essential that kids practice safety procedures, Stucke said, including following instructions of trusted adults.

“For anybody, whether you’re a child or an adult, if you feel prepared for something, then you’re going to feel less anxious about it,” she said. “(Kids need to know) bad things happen sometimes, but there are adults here to keep you safe.”


How Dayton region can stop record increase in teen suicides

Local teen suicide survivor: ‘Things really do get better’

Youth mental health: What can parents do?

Teen suicide: One mother’s story


Our team of investigative reporters digs into what you identified as the most pressing issues facing our community including the Miami Valley’s mental health. Follow our work at or join one of our Facebook Groups.

About the Author