A police officer welcomes students to school following an intruder drill.

A police officer welcomes students to school following an intruder drill.

Since the school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, schools have increasingly conducted active shooter drills to educate students and teachers on how to respond to such an emergency. Today, 95% of public schools conduct some form of active shooter drills, including many schools in the D.C. region, but gun control advocacy groups and some prominent teacher unions have warned about the negative consequences of the drills; suggesting that drills, especially unannounced drills, can create anxiety and depression for students. 

Everytown for Gun Safety, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association recently released a report suggesting that active shooter drills can do more harm than good. The report recommends that schools stop conducting unannounced drills, recommends a prohibition on drills that simulate gun violence and suggests guidelines and best practices for active shooter drills.

We’ll hear from advocates and school officials about how these drills unfold in local schools and the toll it takes on students and teachers. 

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • Shannon Watts Founder, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; @shannonrwatts
  • Lily Eskelsen García President, National Education Association; @Lily_NEA
  • Ed Clarke Chief Safety Officer, Montgomery County Public Schools
  • Kimberely Brams Licensed Clinical Social Worker, PRN Counseling


  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. With the rise of school shootings, active shooter drills are now taking place in 95 percent of public schools. But are they necessary? Do they, in fact, prevent violence, or do they do more harm than good? The gun control advocacy group Every Town for Gun Safety has now joined two national teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association in calling to reassess the use of these drills. Joining me in studio is Edward Clarke. He's the chief safety officer with Montgomery County Public Schools. Ed Clarke, thank you for joining us. Good to see you.

  • 12:32:35

    ED CLARKEThank you, sir.

  • 12:32:35

    NNAMDILet's start with some terminology. Can you please describe what an active shooter drill is, and what do people mean when they refer to obscene tactics?

  • 12:32:45

    CLARKEWell, what we've seen as a result of these tragedies, Kojo, way back from Columbine, through Sandy Hook, through all these school shootings, there's been a movement to practice these emergency preparedness drills. Active shooters sort of simulate a very, very high risk, critical, life-threatening situation where a subject may be armed with a firearm, or may be armed with another weapon. They're also referred to as active assailant drills.

  • 12:33:11

    CLARKESo, as a result of those crises, schools across the country have practiced a variety of those type of emergency response drills to be better prepared in the event of a critical, life-threatening emergency in those ways.

  • 12:33:25

    NNAMDIWell, I'll let Shannon Watts talk about the obscene drills, obscene tactics part of this. Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which is part of the Every Town for Gun Safety organization. She joins us by phone. Shannon Watts, thank you for joining us. Oh, Shannon Watts is no longer on the phone, so it's up to you, then, Ed Clarke.

  • 12:33:45

    CLARKESurely. I think what we mean by obscene active shooter drills is that things are taken a little bit too far, where they actually simulate an active shooter in the school building, replicating a school shooting with either law enforcement personnel or other individuals going through the hallway, knocking on doors, simulating a school shooting, which really increases the trauma to students, as well as staff and others in the building, as well as parents.

  • 12:34:14

    NNAMDIShannon Watts is back with us by phone. Shannon Watts, what do you see as the problems associated with active shooter drills?

  • 12:34:20

    SHANNON WATTSWell, we had been compiling data on this for a while now so that we could assess what was going on. There's really not a lot of data out there. What's we've seen is that the data shows that these drills cause anxiety and depression in children, mainly sleeplessness, worsening school performance. And there's very little data that shows these drills are actually effective. And so when you look at those data points, you have to concur that kids shouldn't be doing these drills. But we know they already are, in 95 percent of schools.

  • 12:34:56

    SHANNON WATTSAnd so we're recommending specifically that faculty and families are given a heads-up before the drills happen, but also that the tone and the content of these drills is appropriate and does not simulate gun violence.

  • 12:35:10

    NNAMDIIn the final analysis, Shannon Watts, would you like active shooter drills to stop, or just the unannounced ones?

  • 12:35:18

    WATTSWell, ideally, kids would not go through these drills. If adults and faculty and administrators want to drill, that's one thing. But we already know that this is happening, and so we just simply want to make sure that this is something that's told to faculty and families ahead of time, and also that the drills are appropriate, that they're trauma-informed, that they're not doing more harm than good.

  • 12:35:44

    NNAMDIDo you think kids should still be involved in these drills?

  • 12:35:47

    WATTSIdeally, no. No.

  • 12:35:50

    NNAMDIWhy not?

  • 12:35:51

    WATTSWell, because the data shows that they can cause anxiety and depression in kids. Many of these drills are not trauma-informed. They're simulating gun violence. They're over the top. And we really do, as a country, have to step back and say, is this in the best interest of our children?

  • 12:36:09

    NNAMDIWhat would you see as the alternative? If the drills were stopped, what kind of threat assessment or preparation would you like to see take their place?

  • 12:36:17

    WATTSWell, look, we don't set a fire in the hallway when we do a fire drill in a school. So, if faculty and adults and teachers are going to drill, then it should be a drill like any other drill. It should not simulate gun violence. We're seeing, for example, teachers being shot with rubber bullets to feel the adrenaline of what an active shooter would be like, an active shooting, kids roleplaying as injured students in hallways, and even strangers rattling the doors of classrooms without letting faculty or students know. And, clearly, these kinds of drills would be traumatizing, and that is not acceptable.

  • 12:36:58

    NNAMDIEd, as chief safety officer at Montgomery County schools, you know active shooter drills do take place there. Do you think they've been effective, and do you think they should continue?

  • 12:37:06

    CLARKEKojo, what we try to do is have a balanced approach. We will never do those live active shooter drills that were just described. We take a scenario-based approach, where, last year, we had discussions with all of our students and staff at the secondary level. So, we're not engaging in those type of very traumatizing tactics there.

  • 12:37:26

    CLARKESo, working with schools, working with students, working with the PTA to kind of make sure we have the measured approach, and understanding there are trauma that are caused by these drills. But we also have trained very well over the years for fire drills, so I think we have to find that balance. We have to have the opportunity after these drills to sort of process out with students and staff, make sure there's counselors available for any students who may be feeling some level of anxiety, and make sure we support those students.

  • 12:37:55

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone now is Lily Eskelsen-Garcia. She's a 6th grade teacher from Utah, also president of the National Education Association. Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:38:05

    LILY ESKELSEN-GARCIAOh, thank you for doing this very important story.

  • 12:38:08

    NNAMDIWhy is the NEA and other organizations calling for the changes to active shooter drills? How did yours and the other organizations involved decide to come out and inform schools that, essentially, they should stop or at least modify how they're doing active shooter drills?

  • 12:38:24

    ESKELSEN-GARCIAOh, because just as Shannon was saying, there are people with very good intentions who, something horrific happens like Parkland, and parents go to the school board, they go to the superintendent and they say, what are you doing? Do something to make sure that my child is safe. And, obviously, you can't just wave a magic wand, so they go, okay, like fire drills we'll have active shooter drills. And it's not the same.

  • 12:38:56

    ESKELSEN-GARCIAWe are getting a lot of calls at the NEA. We represent over 3 million teachers, support staff, even administrators who have called and said, you know, we know, with all good intentions, that our school district is having us do these drills. We think it's actually hurting kids, and they're asking us for information. So, we were very proud to work with Every Town to say, let's get the good information out there.

  • 12:39:27

    ESKELSEN-GARCIALet's talk to the mental health experts, those school psychologists who will say, you know, are we just doing something to say we're doing something, or are we helping kids, or are we actually causing more harm? When you do it wrong, when you mimic a shooting -- and we've seen it done now with kindergarteners, on the first day of school -- they don't get over that quickly, sometimes at all.

  • 12:39:59

    ESKELSEN-GARCIASo, we've got to talk about how we do this in terms of having the adults know what's going on, what's the code, what're you going to hear if we have an intruder. Looking at things like the hardware. Do you have the right locks? Do you have good monitored access to your building? Those are things you do without traumatizing kids. And I always want to point out, do you have the support staff you need?

  • 12:40:34

    ESKELSEN-GARCIAYou know, we've been laying off educators. We've laid off those school psychologists, those counselors. Where is the mental health component where we can look at that learning community? Because some of these shooters are the students themselves.

  • 12:40:50

    NNAMDIThat's what I'd like to talk about next indeed, the mental health component. Because joining us in studio is Kimberly Brams. She's a clinical psychologist with PRN Counseling. Kimberly Brams, thank you for joining us. What effect can unannounced intense shooter drills have on students?

  • 12:41:07

    KIMBERLY BRAMSThank you, Kojo. So, it's not sort of a one-size-fits-all. You have, you know, your young children, and then your middle school and your high school. And it has to be age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate. When you run these drills, you have to have an assessment of your population. With young children, their first entrance into school, they're trying to move towards autonomy and master of their environment. And you don't want to compromise that. So, you have to really attend to their social emotional learning, the identification of their feelings. They're learning to put their feelings into words.

  • 12:41:48

    KIMBERLY BRAMSSo, for the young kids, I don't think the drills are necessarily -- the active shooter drills are necessarily helpful. There may be another way of, you know, performing those drills with the young. I think you have to -- again, you have to look at your population. Who is in your community? Give parents the opportunity to talk about it at home. It all starts at home, so that when they come to school, they feel safe, and their teachers can reinforce those feelings.

  • 12:42:20

    KIMBERLY BRAMSWhat we would do with young kids -- I mean, you can't have young kindergartners go into a room and be quiet. It's just not going to happen, right. So, maybe in high school, a different type of plan may work better for them. So, there's not a one-size-fits-all, but it has to be a trauma-informed plan.

  • 12:42:40

    NNAMDIEarlier, we spoke with Joe Deedon, the president and founder of TAC*ONE Consulting, an active shooter response training organization based in Denver, Colorado. Here's what he had to say about how his company conducts shooter drills.

  • 12:42:53

    JOE DEEDONWhen you cover these stories and you see these unannounced drills that some of these kids are on there talking about getting anxious about, we don't do that type of stuff, and I don't agree with it. And that's, unfortunately, what's giving our program, which is a responsible program, it's actually beneficial and empowering, the exact opposite of providing anxiety. It actually calms them down and provides them with a little bit of confidence and promotes teamwork.

  • 12:43:16

    JOE DEEDONIt's not getting covered, you know. And those other programs, whether it's a drill that's done irresponsibly by local law enforcement -- because there are departments that do it, and I don't know how they get away with it -- you know, it's unfortunately overshadowing good programs like ours, that are done responsibly, and they're way more effective for the kids.

  • 12:43:37

    NNAMDIEd Clarke, are school shooter drills in Montgomery County announced or unannounced?

  • 12:43:41

    CLARKEWhat we try to do is make sure that we're prepared, that our principals have an idea of when we want to hold these drills. Again, these are age-appropriate drills. We drill differently at the secondary level, as we do at the elementary school level. So, we'll certainly communicate with parents, certainly, after the drill that a drill was conducted that day. And, again, we want to monitor the impact to students at all grade levels to see if that anxiety is raised, and to provide that support and services.

  • 12:44:12

    CLARKESo, I think, as the other callers mentioned, having good communication with parents, having those conversations in advance. The other thing that we've learned, Kojo, recently, we've had situations where we were forced to go into a lockdown situation. And it's so important to debrief, not only after each drill, but after those situations there, because you can learn an awful lot. Then you have to modify your protocols based on what you learned. You have to be way more sensitive when we actually see children who may be confined in a secure environment for any period of time. We've got to really assess that. And that will force schools to maybe make changes in their protocols.

  • 12:44:51

    NNAMDIShannon Watts, I'm sure it's hard to determine, but roughly what percentage of schools conduct unannounced and so-called obscene drills?

  • 12:45:00

    WATTSWell, we are drilling down, so to speak, on that now. You know, this report was really to compile the data that we could find. And, as I said, there's very little data that shows these drills are even effective in an actual active shooter situation. We have hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the country. Thousands of them are educators.

  • 12:45:20

    WATTSAnd so now what we're going to do is have conversations with school boards and with lawmakers to talk about the tone and the content of these drills, but also to make sure that they are announced beforehand. And once we start having those conversations, we will be able to put into our database who is giving parents a heads-up and who isn't.

  • 12:45:41

    NNAMDIHere is Noel in Middletown, Maryland. Noel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:45:45

    NOELHi. Thank you. My son is a new freshman in high school. And this is his first experience in public schools, so this was his first year of having a shooter drill. And I was really anxious about it, because he has a long history with an anxiety disorder. And I thought that this event might be really stressful for him. And was actually surprised to learn that he was reassured by the experience and really wanted to know what the plan was.

  • 12:46:16

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. Noel, I can say you are on the one hand, because Joe in Bowie, Maryland is on the other hand. Joe?

  • 12:46:25

    JOEHi. Thanks for taking my call, Kojo. My wife and I are both educators. And we find that, you know, and like many psychologists suggest, that the active shooter trainings tend to be perceived as kind of micro-traumas in the students that we teach.

  • 12:46:44

    JOEAnd, specifically, you know, my wife has a question about what we're doing to address these, you know, predominantly white, predominantly male students who wind up becoming active shooters from the student body, if it's not somebody who's coming in from the outside. And why it's the responsibility of an educator to, at one, you know, provide the education for the child and support for social dynamics or economic dynamics at home and be, you know, a trained armed responder in an active shooter situation.

  • 12:47:17

    JOEAnd in my own experience, you know, further traumatizing or pre-traumatizing children for these possibilities...

  • 12:47:25

    NNAMDI(overlapping) So you are against these active shooter drills, right, Joe?

  • 12:47:29

    JOEI very much am. I very much am.

  • 12:47:31

    NNAMDILily Eskelsen-Garcia, as previously mentioned, 95 percent of public schools are doing active shooter drills. So, how do you convince them to embrace the steps that you're calling for?

  • 12:47:41

    ESKELSEN-GARCIAMy members, teachers and support staff across the country are already there. They want to keep their kids safe. We're talking about people that would put their lives on the line to save their kids. But they don't want to do something that actually makes things worse. So, I'm going to back up a little bit, because there have been people who've said, oh, well, arm the teachers or, you know, something like that.

  • 12:48:07

    ESKELSEN-GARCIAUsually, we -- you know, active shooter drills, arm the teachers. Let's talk about anything except what would actually have prevented that shooter, something like keeping very dangerous people from very easy access to very dangerous weapons. That's one thing. But it' also making sure we have the mental health professionals in that school to do exactly what the last caller, Joe, just said. What about these kids that we may need to intervene with? We may actually be able to see who's troubled.

  • 12:48:43

    ESKELSEN-GARCIAAnd all teachers should be trained in social-emotional learning, should be able to help all kids deal with the issues of their own lives. Those are the things that could keep someone from actually doing harm to their friends. But when we -- my fear and the fear of, I think, educators is instead of doing what works, we'll, like, check the box and we'll hire, subcontract out to the now over $2.5 billion industry on active shooter drills. It's now a thing to hire a company to do this for you. It's just making believe that we're doing something, when we're not. And that's bad enough, but we're actually doing something that could hurt a whole lot of kids.

  • 12:49:44

    NNAMDIKimberly Brams, from a mental health perspective, should these active shooter drills be stopped?

  • 12:49:50

    BRAMSI think they need to be changed. I think they need to be revamped. There are too many people out there doing different things. It should be a comprehensive, trauma-informed emergency planning that should take place in each of our schools.

  • 12:50:07

    NNAMDIIf students are being traumatized by the drills, what can be done to help or to assist them?

  • 12:50:13

    BRAMSWell, for most kids, again, not knowing the background of each individual, having these drills, I do feel, give them a plan, sort of a feeling of mastery, which brings security.

  • 12:50:29

    NNAMDIHere is Brendon in Charlottesville, Virginia. Brendon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:50:35

    BRENDONThank you, Kojo. I appreciate the opportunity. So, I also run a de-escalation training and active threat response training company. And I just want to chime in here, I agree with many of the points that are made about the negative impacts, the unannounced drills we do not support, and that balanced approach.

  • 12:50:51

    BRENDONBut I think one of the most important things for your listeners to consider is that instead of really truly investing more and more time and energy spent on the drills -- and having worked in law enforcement, serving in the Marine Corps, going overseas in combat, I understand how much time is involved in creating these drills. And we need to focus, as was mentioned, on the prevention, the empowerment of the staff.

  • 12:51:15

    BRENDONThere's an opportunity here where we've had programs where we build -- confidence-building exercises with the students and the faculty to help them make decisions under stress. And learning how to make decisions and doing so under stress, having nothing necessarily to do with a wrong player coming in with his gun or as, you know, these worst scenarios that we heard and seen in the news, making headlines. But giving an opportunity to the staff and the faculty to build the resiliency within the students themselves by increasing situational awareness.

  • 12:51:53

    BRENDONThere's also a program that we created called Safety Student and Faculty Teamwork, which actually helps to build the opportunity to connect the students with trusted teachers to identify other students that may be struggling or headed towards trouble, and really just focusing on that empowerment opportunity. So, not saying that drills are not necessary, unannounced drills I completely do not support. I agree with the trauma that it creates.

  • 12:52:18

    BRENDONAnd, you know, having served overseas myself and being in scenario and networks unannounced, if you're not military or law enforcement, I think that can have a traumatic...

  • 12:52:26

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Just about out of time. In the minute we have left, Shannon Watts, is this a reasonable and responsible way to conduct active shooter drills in our schools?

  • 12:52:35

    WATTSIt's not. And what we're losing sight of is that most shooters in schools are students who have easy access to guns in their homes. We are asking children to run, hide and fight, when we should be asking our lawmakers to fight for commonsense gun laws, like requiring secure storage, a background check on every gun sale, red flag laws. These are things that are proven to actually address gun violence before it gets into our schools. That should be our focus, not these drills that are over the top and that have been shown to traumatize kids. That is the solution.

  • 12:53:10

    NNAMDILess than 30 seconds, Ed Clarke. Is there a reasonable and responsible way to conduct active shooter drills in our schools?

  • 12:53:15

    CLARKEI think there is. It's a balanced approach, teaching situation awareness, trauma-informed, being sensitive to the student populations, debriefing after every drill or live situation, and really engaging a lot of partners in that dialogue.

  • 12:53:31

    NNAMDIEdward Clarke, Shannon Watts, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia and Kimberly Brams, thank you all for joining us. This segment about active shooter drills was produced by Kurt Gardinier. And our conversation about affordable housing was produced by Lauren Markoe. Coming up tomorrow, policies surrounding DACA, ICE raids and temporary protected status have changed in recent months. What does this mean for young people, in particular?

  • 12:53:54

    NNAMDIOur latest Kojo in Your Community event brought students and community leaders together to discuss the unique needs of immigrant families in the Washington region. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows