NEWS

Do Active Shooter Drills in Schools Create More Trauma For Students?

Students listen to a presentation by police during a school assembly

John Moore / Getty Images News

Key Takeaways

  • Texas recently amended its regulations for active shooter drills in schools to make them less traumatizing for students. 
  • Active shooter drills and high-intensity simulations are different and some experts argue realistic simulations are not needed in any schools. 
  • Since nearly every K-12 school in the country participates in active shooter drills of some kind, it’s important for parents to speak to their children about what to expect and reaffirm their safety at school.

If you have a child in school, chances are they have experienced some kind of an active shooter drill. But as a parent, it’s hard to know exactly what that entails. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 95% of K-12 schools in the country participate in active shooter drills of some kind, but the frequency of these practices and what they look like varies by state, as does the language around them.

Months after the deadly shooting of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the state’s legislature passed a bill to distinguish between different types of drills. One is a more basic active shooter drill, which is required by the state. The other is an active-threat exercise, which is voluntary and involves more realistic depictions of violence.

Students and school staff already face overwhelming stress every day and our solutions should not introduce additional trauma.

SARAH BURD-SHARPS, SENIOR DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH AT EVERYTOWN FOR GUN SAFETY

The intention of the new regulations is to minimize potential harm to students which can come as a result of those high-intensity drills. Texas schools will now need to reevaluate their drill plans to ensure more trauma is not imposed on kids through the exercises. They can do that by consulting with mental health experts, for example.

“Students and school staff already face overwhelming stress every day and our solutions should not introduce additional trauma,” says Sarah Burd-Sharps, senior director of research at Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization. “To keep schools safe, policymakers must instead focus on proven, preventative measures that foster a safe and trusting school climate and that keep deadly weapons from coming onto school grounds.”

By the time the Uvalde school shooting happened in May 2022, it was already the 27th school shooting of the year. Despite the prevalence of school shootings, they still remain rare. In order to prepare, schools across the country are implementing often fear-inducing preparedness drills, sometimes at the cost of a student’s mental health. 

The Difference Between Types of Active Shooter Drills

Active shooter drills play out in many different forms but there is no standardization of what they are called or how to categorize them. While they may have different names and constitute different actions depending on where you live, there is a distinction in how they are conducted.

“There isn't really a codification of how [drills are] done and that's why some people opt to do them in a more realistic manner,” says David J Schonfeld, MD, FAAP who is the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “They're not standardized.”

If they're supposed to sit quietly in the corner of a room, there's no reason that they have to see people in blood or see real weapons or hear gunshots.

DAVID J SCHONFELD, MD, FAAP

A common way to operate an active shooter drill is for children to turn off the lights, huddle in a closet, and lock the door. You may have heard your child refer to this as a "lockdown drill." In some areas, these more basic drills are turned up a notch and feature intense simulations of an active shooter that mimic real shootings. They can also include gunshot sounds and weapons. 

“If you use makeup to look like blood, that doesn't help children or staff know what to do when there's actually a school shooting,” says Dr. Schonfeld. “If they're supposed to sit quietly in the corner of a room, there's no reason that they have to see people in blood or see real weapons or hear gunshots.”

The passage of the legislation in Texas defining more clearly the difference between the two types of drills is a crucial step many advocates have called for. They make the argument that those intense active shooter simulations are not necessary because of their risk for harm. Some experts argue they should be eliminated altogether and solely reserved for law enforcement training, not to be done in the presence of children. 

How Active Shooter Drills in Schools Can Create Trauma

Active shooter drills which feature simulations will always cause trauma because of their inherent violent nature, according to Aurora Vasquez, Esq., vice president of state policy for Sandy Hook Promise, an organization born out of the 2012 shooting of 20 students and six educators at a Connecticut elementary school. 

“Both can be traumatizing to students,” Vasquez says. “Simulations, in our opinion, are the most traumatizing. You cannot simulate an act of violence in a way that is not traumatizing.’ 

Vasquez adds that children bring their life experiences with them to school in one way or another, so active shooter simulations can trigger or add to personal traumas. For example, there may be kids who have experienced gun violence in their homes or community. 

“If you feel like you're in a situation where someone is trying to kill someone, then if you've ever been in a related situation before or experienced the death of someone you care about, that can cause even more emotional distress,”  Dr. Schonfeld explains. 

A study conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety together with the Georgia Institute of Technology showed that active shooter drills cause lasting mental health issues for children. The group found the drills are associated with depression, stress and anxiety, and overall psychological health problems in children as young as 5 years old up to high schoolers, as well as their parents and teachers.

“We shouldn’t have to practice staying alive when the shooting starts. But thanks to weak gun laws, my generation has grown up living and learning in fear,” says Peren Tiemann, a volunteer on the advisory board at Students Demand Action in Ohio. “Instead of focusing on traumatic and ineffective reactive measures like active shooter drills, our solutions to gun violence have to focus on keeping guns out of schools in the first place.”

Are Active Shooter Drills and Simulations Drills Effective?

There isn’t a lot of research into how effective active shooter drills actually are, despite how common they are. It’s difficult to really understand whether conducting extreme simulations and drills actually decreases the number of victims in a shooting.

“I have seen situations where there have been some of the largest mass shootings and people said they just went to training and it would have been worse if they hadn't,” Dr. Schonfeld explains. “But of course, [researchers] don't really know anyone who's found a worse outcome than somebody who hasn't had training. We don't know for sure.”

Some research has actually pointed to the complete opposite, says Vasquez. She explains that studies have consistently shown that simulated active shooter drills are more harmful than helpful to children.

“The research indicates that there are negative impacts on students' mental health and well-being not only immediately after the simulation, but it actually lingers,” Vasquez says. 

Based on their study, Everytown for Gun Safety urges schools to assess whether their drills were causing more harm to their students. To prepare for the possibility of an active shooter, the organization instead encourages proactive school safety measures including threat assessments, access to mental health professionals, and social support. That combined with common sense gun laws like keeping guns locked and secure helps reduce the risk of to a school.

The research indicates that there are negative impacts on students' mental health and well-being not only immediately after the simulation, but it actually lingers.

AURORA VASQUEZ, ESQ., SANDY HOOK PROMISE

How to Prepare Students Without Scaring Them

Sandy Hook Promise maintains that simulation-based drills will never be okay because of their overwhelming contribution to trauma. But, the organization says, there are better ways to conduct active shooter drills without scaring children. The group put together guiding principles to create drills that are trauma-informed. They include announcing the drill beforehand and allowing students to weigh in on their school’s safety.

Vasquez and Dr. Schonfeld also emphasize how important it is for parents to speak to their children about active shooter drills. Part of that is reminding them that their schools are still safe places to be. 

Older students can also talk to school leaders about the drills and ask to give their input on how the drills affect them. "To be able to ask for improvements, things to be done differently, or for certain aspects of the active shooter drill that their school is using to be taken off the table,” says Vasquez.

At the root of the issue, Dr. Schonfeld argues, is the need for active shooter drills to exist in the first place. While there are less traumatic ways to incorporate safety practices, they must also be combined with addressing broader issues of gun violence. 

“The fact that we are seeing gun violence and mass shootings as an inevitability, as opposed to something that we should be doing everything to prevent, is, by itself, a big issue,”  Dr. Schonfeld says. “It's an unfortunate reality of where we are in our country."

What This Means For You

Since over 95% of schools in the country have an active shooter drill during the school year, it's likely your child will experience them throughout their K-12 experience. It's important to understand how the drill works in your child's school and to have open conversations with your child about them while also continuing to affirm their safety at school.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Texas Legislature Online, Bill SB 168

  2. NCES, Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2017.

  3. Texas Legislature Online. Bill SB 168.

  4. NPR. 27 school shootings have taken place so far this year.

  5. Texas School Safety Center. 2.4 Training and Drills.

  6. Moore-Petinak N, Waselewski M, Patterson BA, Chang T. Active shooter drills in the united states: a national study of youth experiences and perceptionsJournal of Adolescent Health. 2020;67(4):509-513. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2020.06.015

  7. Everytown Research and Policy, The Impact of Active Shooter Drills in Schools.

  8. Everytown Research and Policy, The Impact of Active Shooter Drills in Schools

  9. Sandy Hook Promise. Guiding Principles: Active Shooter Drills

  10. Everytown Research and Policy. Reconsider active shooter drills.

By Emily Nadal
Emily Nadal is a freelance writer specializing in pregnancy and maternal health. She holds a master's degree in health and science journalism from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. She also has experience working in television news at local stations in New York City.