After Michigan Killings, Students Praised Shooter Drills. But Do They Really Work?

Oxford High School held repeated trainings on how to handle a gunman in school. But some critics are questioning their purpose.,

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As a gunman opened fire at Oxford High School in Michigan on Tuesday, panicked students and teachers remembered their active shooter drills. They barricaded doors with desks and chairs. They covered windows and then huddled silently in corners or bathroom stalls. Some armed themselves with makeshift weapons like scissors and calculators. When a pathway looked clear, they ran.

The chilling choreography is practiced at the school several times per year, according to students. And some said it helped them survive a shooting that killed four teenagers and left several others in critical or serious condition. Students talked of having strategies at hand, even amid chaos.

“I think the training is helpful,” said Joyeux Times, a 16-year-old junior who was at school during the shooting. “It saved a lot of students’ lives.”

But the nightmare at Oxford High School — one of its students has been charged with murder and terrorism — is also a reminder that lockdown drills do not forestall gun violence. More than 95 percent of American schools employed the tactic before the coronavirus pandemic, and criticism of the drills has grown over the past few years, with parents and some researchers questioning their use.

“There hasn’t been a strong body of evidence that these drills are helping,” said Megan Carolan, vice president of research at the Institute for Child Success.

Almost all American public school students participate in lockdown drills — sometimes several times a year, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Yet, despite the familiar headlines after school shootings in the United States, the risk to any individual student remains infinitesimal, and a vast majority of violence affecting children and adolescents occurs in homes or neighborhoods.

Critics worry that the cumulative effects of these drills can harm the mental health of students, while doing little to prevent mass shootings. The intense focus on “hardening” schools, some critics say, can detract from strategies that could prevent shootings from taking place, such as stricter gun laws, better threat assessment and more mental health counseling in schools.

Ms. Carolan called active shooter trainings “potentially traumatic,” especially for younger students. Other approaches to mitigate the risk of school shootings could include helping children develop “emotional regulation, identifying when something feels off and feeling comfortable speaking up to an adult,” she said.

But for schools, intensive security efforts can seem like a must. Most states require safety drills. And the school safety industry is a big business, with many companies that sell training sessions, metal detectors and security gadgets to administrators and police departments.

Oxford High School used an active shooter drill known as ALICE: “alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.” Navigate360, which owns the ALICE training program, offers a two-day course to school staff members and police officers, who then return to their communities to train teachers and students.

The drills differ from others in that they place significant emphasis on proactive strategies to evade a gunman when leaving the scene is not possible.

J.P. Guilbault, chief executive of Navigate360, said traditional lockdown drills in which students are taught to “hide and don’t move” had “resulted in death” in past shootings.

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Students in a classroom at Oxford High School used desks to barricade the doors.Credit…

“We teach barricading, where to lock down, communication and code words, and how to use noise distraction and create distance,” he said. “Countering or fighting is a last resort.”

Some of the strategies that students at Oxford High School reportedly learned have a mixed track record, said Chris Dorn, a consultant with the nonprofit Safe Havens International, which helps schools improve security.

For instance, some students armed themselves with objects like scissors, which could make a perpetrator more likely to shoot, he said. Mr. Guilbault said ALICE training does not endorse students arming themselves with any specific implements, but does discuss using nearby objects to “create distraction.”

Barricading also has detractors. Oxford teachers used a product called a Nightlock, a barrier at the bottom of doors, and some students said they blocked them with furniture. But evidence from past school shootings suggests that barricading can increase noise and indicate to gunmen where people are hiding, Mr. Dorn said.

The most important strategies for students and teachers to use in the event of an active shooter are locking doors, turning off lights, hiding out of sight lines and ignoring any door knocks or questions from outside of a room, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, who studies school lockdown drills.

But the bigger questions about the active shooter drills go beyond tactics — and spill over into how schools should balance the threat of violence with the mental health of students.

Dr. Schildkraut’s research has suggested that even a relatively gentle lockdown drill can “slightly” decrease students’ sense of safety at school, she said. But she argued that the drills were necessary because adolescents who participated in them reported “feeling more prepared and more empowered,” she said. “It is better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it.”

Experts agree that the younger students are, the more carefully drills should be conducted, with an emphasis on overall safety and listening to adults in unusual circumstances, instead of the specific threat of gun violence.

But almost every American child will eventually confront the existence of school shootings.

In Chicago, Sara Rezvi, a former public-school teacher who now directs an after-school program, recalled a ninth-grade girl asking her during a lockdown drill, “Ms. Rezvi, would you take a bullet for us if somebody walked in with a gun?”

While she is not necessarily opposed to the drills, Ms. Rezvi said schools provided little space for teachers and students to debrief from the fear they cause.

“There are no mental health resources for the before, during and after,” she said. “None of this is what any of us signed up for, and it’s exhausting that nothing is being done about it.”

In Oakland County, Mich., the authorities have spoken proudly of the lockdown protocols at Oxford High School, noting that during the shooting, students, staff members and police officers all acted exactly as they were trained to.

It was not enough.

“The response was executed perfectly, yet four children were killed and multiple injuries occurred,” said Karen D. McDonald, the Oakland County prosecutor, whose office is overseeing the criminal case. “We really can’t train ourselves out of this tragedy.”

Giulia Heyward and Mitch Smith contributed reporting.

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