Locks, lights, out of sight
How lockdown drills affect America’s children
As schools re-open across the country, there’s one thing that has not gone away: lockdown drills
All of Van Duyn Elementary School in Syracuse, New York, went eerily quiet.
On that cold November afternoon in 2019, there was no sound in the school’s hallways except for the echoing of footsteps, going door to door between classrooms. Students and teachers crouched in the corners of the rooms, concealed by darkness. One young girl covered her mouth with her hands to prove she was keeping quiet.
Michael Thompson, assistant director in the Syracuse City School District’s Security Department, unlocked one of the doors and peeked into a third-grade classroom where some students huddled behind a teacher’s desk.
“Nice work,” he said calmly from the doorway. “Stay in place. There will be an announcement.”
The school was practicing a lockdown drill, something that New York state mandates all public schools practice at least four times annually. In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, the Syracuse City School District gave CNN rare access to attend some of these lockdown drills.
As soon as Thompson and a few other drill organizers completed checking classrooms in Van Duyn Elementary, an announcement across the school’s intercom told teachers that they could turn the lights back on in their classrooms. Students could go back to coloring with crayons. Teachers could resume reading storybooks to their classrooms. The drill was over.
Suddenly the chirps of young children and teacher’s voices emerged in the hallways again, flowing out of classrooms, as if the silent darkness from moments before had never happened. The intercom announcement suggested teachers debrief and discuss the drill within their classrooms.
With a soft smile on her face and white bow in her hair, fifth-grade student Eva Hill told her teacher the drill was “helpful” in case there was a real emergency in the school. Some students became somber and pensive as their classmates discussed the risk of a “real emergency” -- and one young girl told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin that she was nervous.
“When we had the lockdown, I felt like it was real,” the girl said. “Because I got nervous.”
Baldwin responded, “You got nervous. You know what? That's okay. That's normal.”
Are lockdown drills necessary? Hear what kids have to say 5:59
When a lockdown is no longer a “drill” and becomes “real,” that can leave lasting negative impacts, according to students who have experienced active shooter situations. The National Association of School Psychologists notes on its website, “Lockdowns can save lives and are considered best practice in crisis response. However, depending on circumstances, some lockdowns may produce anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms in some students or staff, as well as loss of instructional time.”
Mariah Cooley, who is now a student at Howard University, was at her high school during a lockdown in winter 2018.
Cooley, who attended Richwoods High School in Peoria, Illinois, had taken part in lockdown drills before. But this time was different, since someone had a gun in the building, she said.
"In those moments I felt so afraid, I started texting my parents to let them know what's going on," Cooley said. "I was on the second floor thinking, 'Can I jump from this window, hide in the closet?' That's a real reality for many teens in America because the government has failed to put policies in place to stop these shootings at our schools."
While the lockdown ended without casualties, the experience had a lasting impact on Cooley, she said. Cooley felt a similar fear watching the lockdown at the Capitol during the insurrection in January and sympathized with lawmakers and their families.
"I hope [lawmakers] realize how much trauma high school Americans and middle school kids go through, not necessarily every single day, but more often than every other nation worldwide," Cooley said.
Across the United States, lockdown drills have become nearly as commonplace in schools as fire drills. While school shootings have been documented as early as 1927, after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, these drills draw attention each time another tragic school shooting shakes the core of the country.
Following the lockdown drill in Syracuse, a fifth-grade student told Baldwin, “I’ve been doing this for a lot of years.”
Baldwin responded, “You’ve been doing this a lot of years?”
“Yes,” the girl said matter-of-factly.
Meanwhile, one of the student’s classmates described the drill as “scary.”
“You never know who will be coming through the door or not,” he said.
“Even when you know it’s a drill? It’s still scary?” Baldwin asked.
“Yes,” the boy responded.
Baldwin turned to the classroom and asked, “Are you glad you do these lockdown drills?”
The students said, “yes” in unison. When Baldwin asked why, the students responded that the drills keep them safe.
“If done properly, in conjunction with training, the lockdown drills provide us with an opportunity to train our staff and students, to build their personal confidence in their ability to respond in an actual crisis,” said Thomas Ristoff, director of the Syracuse City School District’s department of public safety in New York.
“Our main objective is to build that ‘muscle memory’ with our students and staff so that they can respond by rote in a stressful situation, in part due to the repetitive training and drills,” he said.
Ristoff and some public safety experts are concerned about how to create safe school environments for students, but there’s debate over the best approach.
The question at the heart of this debate is what causes more harm in a student’s life: the threat of a school shooting occurring or the constant stress from lockdown drills?
‘You run through 70 of them by the time you graduate’
School shootings remain a rare occurrence in general, said Jillian Peterson, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She co-wrote an opinion piece for CNN in 2018 titled, “The usual approach to school security isn’t working.”
According to FBI data, since 2000, an average of about five students or staff a year have died in active shooter incidents in a school. That’s five out of 56 million students in the United States.
The case for and against school lockdown drills 5:55
It is unfathomably sad to imagine even the death of one child, let alone many children, and in such a violent way. It is a universal shock that makes many parents and communities want to see some type of action -- whether that be in the form of gun control, security measures, school psychologists or anti-bullying education.
Those numbers -- along with each time a mass shooting event made headlines in the United States -- have put pressure on law enforcement and school officials to prevent the next massacre, and many have turned to lockdown drills.
A 2019 report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of school-associated homicides involving multiple victims decreased from July 1994 to June 2009, but then “increased significantly” from July 2009 through the 2017-18 school year. Yet youth homicides associated with schools still accounted for less than 2% of all youth homicides, according to the report.
“We're seeing a slight uptick in other types of mass shootings, but school mass shootings have been pretty consistent over time. What's changed is our response,” Peterson said. “What's changed is a (nearly) $3 billion school security industry, that we're spending millions and millions of dollars on things like doors and bulletproof glass.”
In 2018, the National School Safety Conference had to triple its exhibition hall size, Sean Burke, president of the School Safety Advocacy Council, said at the time. The number of exhibitors at the conference went up 25% compared to the previous year.
“What's changed is also the fact that we've started running our kids through these lockdown drills, starting at 4 or 5 years old,” Peterson said. “In Minnesota, it's five a year, so you run through 70 of them by the time you graduate. And that really, I think, normalizes this and makes it feel like it's a very present problem, when you're rehearsing and preparing for it all the time.”
Demographically, mass shootings tend to occur in suburban and rural communities, Peterson said.
“They tend to occur in large public high schools that are predominantly White,” she said. “We've analyzed this, it's statistically different than where other types of gun violence happen, which tends to be urban, public high schools that are majority students of color.”
Data shows that school shootings also happen in the United States more than other major industrialized nations. A CNN analysis published in 2018 found that, since 2009, the United States had about 57 times as many school shootings as Canada, Japan, Germany, Italy France and the United Kingdom combined.
Fifty-seven percent of US teens reported in 2018 that they were worried a shooting could happen at their school, with one in four being “very worried,” according to a Pew Research Center survey.
What happens in a lockdown drill
More than 95% of public schools in the United States had drilled students on a lockdown procedure before the coronavirus pandemic. As schools reopen during the pandemic, they continue to run these drills, although many have been modified for social distancing.
In New York City, for instance, the city’s Department of Education website notes that due to the pandemic, “during a drill, students should be instructed to remain in their seats and remain silent instead of moving to the safe corner.”
In 2016, New York Senator Robert Ortt proposed a bill that was signed into law requiring a minimum of four mandatory lockdown drills in school districts across the state.
“It’s surprising that after the numerous horrific school attacks over the past two decades, sensible legislation such as this hasn’t already been adopted,” Ortt said in a news release at the time. “This amended law holds the safety of our children to a higher standard. It’s vital that we prepare our school districts as best we can in order to respond quickly and efficiently before, during and after an incident. I’m hopeful that with this new requirement in place, it could prevent a bad situation from becoming worse and help save lives.”
A State Education Department memo from September that was shared with CNN in February notes in bold print that “When conducting a drill, it should ALWAYS be announced that it is a DRILL and NOT AN EMERGENCY.”
The document also says, “While it may be desirable to practice certain actions during a drill, such as law enforcement ‘releasing’ a classroom from lockdown, it should be done in a way to minimize the likelihood that a student may experience trauma as a result.”
Some critics argue that lockdown drills can still traumatize students and more research is needed to determine how effective they are at keeping schools safe.
In July, Colorado Congressman Ed Perlmutter and Florida Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy announced that the House Appropriations Committee approved $1 million for independent experts to publish a study on the potential mental health effects of active shooter drills in elementary and secondary schools -- an effort that Perlmutter and Murphy spearheaded.
“As states put in place plans to ensure students can safely return to the classroom once this pandemic subsides, we must also give school administrators the tools they need to most effectively conduct active shooter drills,” Murphy said in part in the announcement. “This expert study will help us protect students from the physical threat of school shootings without causing lasting psychological trauma in the process.”
Also last year, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety, a group working to end gun violence, to publicly condemn active shooter drills in schools. Instead of active shooter drills, the trio recommends a more “comprehensive” approach that doesn't involve students, but rather staff training on lockout procedures and emergency medical procedures and enacting Extreme Risk laws, which don't allow people who demonstrate risk of harming themselves or others to buy a firearm.
Some school security experts, such as Jaclyn Schildkraut, are convinced that lockdown drills can be safe and effective procedures for children -- if done properly.
“I understand the apprehension, but this is really no different than when my parents did nuclear bomb drills back in the ’60s,” said Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego.
“This is unfortunately a product of the time that we’re in, and we have to prepare our kids with these tools to stay safe. Because it’s always better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it,” she said. “We train students in the Midwest to deal with tornadoes, and we train students in the West to deal with earthquakes. Yet for some reason, we won’t do it for a manmade disaster, only for a natural disaster, which seems counterintuitive.”
There are ways these drills should not be carried out, Schildkraut said.
“For instance, shooting teachers with pellets, bringing in guns with simulated ammunition so they can hear what guns sound like, crisis actors laying on the floor in pools of fake blood, none of that is necessary,” Schildkraut said. In some cases, students and staff are not alerted when a drill is in fact a drill, which also can be harmful, she said.
“You can make the point in a less harmful and traumatizing way,” she said. “These extreme examples are giving these exercises a really bad rep.”
There is a specific drill protocol that Schildkraut points to as what schools should be doing. But she told CNN that she has since temporarily modified the drills to incorporate social distancing due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Schildkraut is writing a book and has conducted extensive research on lockdown drills in the Syracuse City School District -- including the drill at Van Duyn Elementary School -- which follow the so-called “standard response protocol” for situations where there is an active threat within the school building. That protocol was developed by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, a nonprofit that offers programs for crisis response and post-crisis support. The foundation’s website states that its programs are used in more than 30,000 schools and organizations across the US, Canada and 11 other countries around the world.
The protocol uses the directives of “locks, lights, out of sight,” meaning it involves locking classroom doors, turning off lights, staying out of sight and remaining quiet.
When it comes to active shooter situations, “they’re typically over in five minutes or less, and so what the door lock does is it creates a barrier between students and the shooter that buys them those necessary minutes,” Schildkraut said. “The second thing is putting the lights down or turning the lights off, and that provides an added layer of concealment, so it makes it more difficult for someone to see in the rooms.”
Concealment is also the focus of the third step -- remain “out of sight.”
“When you’re doing drills, you’re practicing,” Schildkraut said. “You’re teaching yourself and you’re building those skills to do what you need to do.”
Schildkraut, Ristoff and school crisis prevention expert Amanda Nickerson surveyed 10,015 students in sixth grade and above within the Syracuse City School District before and after the students completed the “standard response protocol” lockdown drills and training in 2018 and 2019. The survey results were published in the Journal of School Violence in December 2019.
The results, though limited to that one school district, showed that perceptions of feeling prepared for an emergency were rated higher among the students after the drills compared with before. The results also showed that students were less likely to report feeling safe at school or in various parts of the building after the drills. The researchers conducted a survey in November 2018, about a week after students completed unscheduled lockdown drills. The students completed another drill in March 2019 and were surveyed again in April 2019.
“Though feelings about emergency preparedness may have improved over the course of the project, perceptions of safety in the schools did not. Specifically, students taking the survey at the end of the project were significantly less likely to report feeling safe at school or in various parts of the building,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers noted in the study, however, that some outside factors, such as community violence, could help explain why there may have been no improvements in perceptions of safety during that same time period.
“Over the course of the project, three currently enrolled students from the district were killed (outside of the schools) and many were exposed to other episodes of neighborhood violence,” the researchers wrote in the study.
“Thus, it is possible that their concerns about their potential for victimization in the community carried over into their perceptions of their safety at school,” they wrote, adding that more research is necessary.
Schildkraut said that the students in Syracuse often shared their thoughts or concerns with her as she conducted her research on lockdown drills in their district. She said that some students have asked her whether the lockdown drills could help potential shooters devise a mass attack. Based on her own research, Peterson said that 91% of the time school shooters are current or former students of the school.
“My response to them is always the same: ‘We do run that risk, but it’s important to make sure that all of you have the skills you need to stay safe if something bad happens, so it’s a risk that we feel is important to take,’” Schildkraut said.
“The reality is that even though you’re telling the shooter the doors are going to be locked, the lights are going to be off and everybody’s going to be out of sight, they’re still not going to try to breach that door,” she said, “Historically, what we have seen is that they’re just coming in vigilante and they’re not really worried about this methodical thinking.”
‘This is not something that I had to do growing up’
Dr. Miriam Knoll, a radiation oncologist, is just one of many parents across the country whose children have participated in lockdown drills.
“I don’t think the kids are scared. They see it as a fire drill,” Knoll said about her own children in December 2019, who were attending first, fifth and sixth grade at the time in a private Jewish school.
“When the kids described to me what the lockdown drill was, they just said it very matter-of-factly: There’s a loudspeaker that goes off, ‘This is a lockdown drill. This is a lockdown drill,’ and then the kids know to be very quiet,” she said. “The teacher locks the door and all the kids very quietly go to the corner and crouch and are quiet until the drill is over.”
In 2019, Knoll posted a photo to Twitter of a letter she received from her children’s school, stating that the school had a lockdown drill and “everything went exceptionally well.” In her tweet, Knoll wrote that the letter was “really hard to read.”
“When I saw that email, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m so happy that the administration at my kids’ school is so on top of things.’ And then I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, why is this something that we need to be concerned about and worried about?’” Knoll said.
“This is not something that I had to do growing up. We had fire drills and when my parents were growing up during the Cold War, they had drills because of the threat of nuclear war with Russia,” she said. “But the fact that it’s now the new normal that kids need to be afraid of shootings in schools … it’s just very scary.”
Knoll said that she remains “grateful” to her children’s school, teachers, and administrators for participating in lockdown drills in an effort to ensure their safety.
“I think that these discussions need to be had more and more in a preventative matter, because ultimately it’s a public health issue and it just can’t be ignored,” she said.
For Hamline criminology professor Peterson -- someone who has published multiple research articles on school shootings – her work around lockdown drills is personal. Her son has participated in some at his grade school.
“I was asking him about his lockdown drills, and he was explaining that you have to sit in the middle of the carpet,” Peterson said.
“I said, ‘Why do you have to sit in the middle of the carpet,’ and he said, ‘Because in case bullets fly through the windows.’ And he wasn't particularly anxious about that,” Peterson said. “It actually broke my heart even more, that that was just part of his childhood, and we were teaching him that that is the world that he lives in.”
There has been a consensus among experts that more research on lockdown drills is needed. Outside of Schildkraut’s study in Syracuse, very few have analyzed students’ perceptions of lockdown drills.
One such study in 2007, published in the journal School Psychology Review, included 74 fourth, fifth and sixth graders in upstate New York. The children were split into two groups; one group completed a lockdown drill, while the other group engaged in another classroom activity not related to lockdown drills.
In that second group, “we actually were teaching the kids how to do origami,” said Nickerson, who co-authored the study and is a professor and director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo in New York.
“We then looked at the extent to which kids in both groups were able to know what to do in a lockdown situation,” she said.
“We were also very interested in their anxiety levels and their perceptions of school safety. What we found was that students that were taught the drill procedures and then had to do them were able to gain the knowledge, do the actual steps of the drill, and then there were no differences in anxiety and perceptions of school safety between those kids and the kids that did the origami.”
Even though the research on lockdown drills and students’ perceptions of them remains limited, Melissa Reeves, past president of the National Association of School Psychologists, said that “absolutely you need to be prepared for an active shooter situation, but it doesn’t have to be highly sensorial.”
Developing sensorial drills, such as those that include the sounds of real gunfire or do not inform students that the simulation is a drill, could negatively impact the mental health of some students, Reeves said.
“When you simulate those kinds of situations, you don’t know the trauma histories of your students and your staff members, and that could be a trauma trigger,” Reeves said. The lockdown drill that CNN attended in Syracuse did not include such simulations and students were informed that it was in fact a drill.
“We don’t light a fire in the hallway to practice fire drills. And when we teach stranger danger, we don’t put kids on a street corner and have someone grab them and scare the daylights out of them,” she said. “You can walk them through or talk them through what to do without having them live a real life experience that is simulated.”
Experts warn what not to do during a lockdown drill
Many security and school safety experts understand the need to prepare for the worst but say there are best practices to follow to minimize the psychological impact of lockdown drills on children and their teachers.
Teachers and students should always be aware of planned lockdown drills, Dr. David Schonfeld, pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, told CNN in 2019.
"The use of deception in any of these exercises is inappropriate and unethical," he added.
Lockdowns should also be kept consistent -- the same drill every time -- with teachers offering frequent and calm reassurance, Dr. Steven Schlozman, a psychiatrist and an associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN in 2019. He recommended discussing the situation in small groups after lockdown procedures.
Schools should also avoid overly realistic scenarios, Schonfeld said. He also urged schools to remember to ask students what makes them feel safe.
The American Academy of Pediatrics in August issued a policy statement outlining the risks of “high-intensity” active shooter drills and providing guidance on how crisis drills can be conducted in a healthy way.
Typical active shooter drills might have students hide in a part of their classroom and keep quiet. More intense variations may stage a shooting, and some may even be conducted without prior warning to students and teachers.
In its policy statement, published in the journal Pediatrics, the AAP advised against "high-intensity" active shooter drills, which may use real weapons, gunfire or makeup for fake gunshot wounds or blood.
Active shooter drills are often planned without the input of experts who can address the needs of young children, children who've experienced trauma and disabled children. Students should only be included in drills that are designed for their benefit, the AAP said, not just for the benefit of faculty.
A greater need for mental health services
Lockdown drills are still happening even during the coronavirus pandemic -- but now they involve social distancing measures. There hasn’t been much research into whether closed schools due to the pandemic or virtual learning will have any other effect on schools’ strategies or future intentions with lockdown drills.
Watch rare access inside a school lockdown drill 6:20
But Peterson has argued that there should be more focus on preventing school shootings from occurring in the first place.
“We've been doing safety in one way since Columbine happened, and it's not fixing the problem,” Peterson said. “The problem's not going away, so I think we have to try other strategies.”
Most school shooters tend to have histories of early childhood trauma, Peterson said, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, having a parent who died by suicide or being raised by people with serious or persistent mental illness.
Due to that, she has argued for schools to take different approaches to prevent a school shooting before it happens, such as providing students with more mental health resources and training staff to identify signs of trauma or past traumas.
During the pandemic, however, mental health services provided by schools have been disrupted. One study found in past years, more than a third of youth receiving mental health services in the United States got them in an academic setting. Experts believe that many of these youth are now going without the extra help.
If Peterson could change how drills are performed, she would argue for the adults to be trained and not the students.
“It's not that you don't want to train anybody, and you don't want to rehearse, but there's no reason that the kids -- if there's a potential perpetrator, that's who it is -- so there's no reason that, I think, they need to be going through it,” Peterson said.
When it comes to the perceived threat of a school shooting, “we don't know what impact it's going to have yet on this generation, the idea of it's now just normal,” she said. “These kids, I'm seeing them come into college now. They're kind of ‘Generation Columbine.’ They haven't lived in a world where this is not a reality, where this is not something that you practice for on a daily basis, that is ever-present on your mind. Living with that knowledge -- that people might come kill you at school -- I don't know what impact that's going to have. I think we've yet to see it.”
Clarification: A School Psychology Review study mentioned in this article originally published in 2007 and published online in 2019.