The Case Against Active Shooter Drills

A criminologist criticizes a popular school security measure.


James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, is one of the country's leading authorities on mass murder—and a leading voice of caution when Americans react in poorly considered ways to statistically rare crimes. In an op-ed for USA Today, he makes the case against the sometimes gruesomely realistic lockdown drills that have taken hold in many schools:

Drills to prepare students in the event of fire or other natural catastrophes are commonplace. Yet the aggressive nature of shooting drills staged in many schools makes them qualitatively different and exceptionally more traumatizing to children. The psychological harm that may come from these simulations is not warranted in light of the low probability that such an event will actually occur….

Commercial airlines train their flight crews to handle disaster situations—such as the unlikely "water landing"—but passengers are only asked to watch a brief demonstration of grabbing hold of oxygen masks, without having actually to practice this maneuver. Cruise ships require that guests don life jackets and learn the location of their muster stations, but no one has to step foot inside a lifeboat or suffer the experience of being lowered into the water. In case of a catastrophe in the air or at sea, the passengers will be directed where to go and advised what to do.

This same reasonable posture should apply for schools: prepare the staff but spare the students. As with the usual pre-flight or pre-cruise protocols, a few simple instructions on escape strategy may be sensible. However, over-preparing students needlessly risks intensifying their fears and anxiety.

And for those whose fear of school shootings overwhelms all sense of proportion, Fox adds this:

Airlines and cruise lines don't inspire dangerous ideas by reciting emergency drills. By contrast, there are a few students for whom the notion of wreaking havoc on their schoolmates may seem like an exhilarating idea. Obsessing over the unlikely possibility of a school shooting can unfortunately serve to inspire potential copycats and inadvertently increase the chance of tragedy.

As some schools add fake blood and guns shooting blanks to their drills, there comes a point where what they're doing looks less like disaster preparedness and more like a ritual reenactment. I'll let the anthropologists debate what sort of cultural need such security LARPing might be fulfilling; it certainly goes well beyond what's needed for public safety.

Bonus link: "Are Lockdowns Really Necessary? And Why Can't We Discuss This?"