Texas Revamps ‘Active-Shooter’ Drills at K-12 Schools to Minimize Trauma

Lambert here: Oh, good.

By Renuka Rayasam, KHN Senior Correspondent, and Colleen DeGuzman, KHN. Peggy Girshman Fellow. Originally published at Kaiser Health News.

AUSTIN, Texas — After Britt Kelly’s son participated in a lockdown drill two years ago in his Lamar, Texas, kindergarten class, he had nightmares and wet his bed. Now 8, he can sleep only with a light on.

In August, Mary Jackson’s daughter, a kindergartner in Leander, asked her mom to put a “special lock” on her bedroom door to “keep bad adults out” in the wake of a separate lockdown drill.

Clay Giampaolo, a high school senior with special needs, said that after drills at his school in Plano, he goes to the special education room to “calm down.”

As the nation reevaluates its gun laws, training for violent threats has become a grisly yet commonplace reality in K-12 schools. More than 40 states require schools to prepare students to react when a campus comes under attack. Nearly every student in America experiences at least one or more of these drills a year, even though their effectiveness has been hotly debated by state legislators, school staffers, safety experts, and parents.

About 98% of public schools taught students lockdown procedures before the pandemic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The reasons for them are clear: The 2020-21 school year saw 93 school shootings with casualties, the highest number in two decades, according to the NCES. While school shootings are rare, they have devastating consequences.

But the preparations for these events also can come with a price. “The literal trauma caused just by them is horrifying,” Giampaolo said.

Anxiety, stress, and depression increased 39%-42% in K-12 students following lockdown drills, according to a study published in December in the journal Nature that examined social media posts. The drills, especially those that involve simulations, heightened students’ fear around the possibility of a shooting and made them feel unsafe in school. The more realistic the drill, the more fear they provoked. Students like Giampaolo who have special needs, and those who have experienced previous trauma, are among the most affected, according to safety experts.

At least one state is taking a step toward balancing school safety and student health. To minimize trauma to participants, new Texas regulations require schools to ensure that drills don’t simulate shootings — a change that comes just one semester after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde.

“If some kids are coming away traumatized or we’re magnifying existing trauma, we’re not moving in the right direction,” said Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, an advocacy group that supported the bill.

Texas mandates that schools complete two lockdown drills a year. But there was confusion and wide-ranging interpretations about how they should be conducted, said state Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, a Democrat who sponsored the bill that passed during the 2021 legislative session.

Despite a growing body of research about how to prepare for worst-case scenarios, not all schools are following best practices and there’s no way to tell which ones are, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York-Oswego, who has argued in favor of drills.

“We have no national standard, no national guidance, and no tracking system,” Schildkraut said.

In extreme cases, schools simulate shootings, with officers brandishing weapons or mimicking gunshot sounds, which she said is unnecessarily traumatizing for both students and staff members. “We don’t set schools on fire to practice a fire drill,” said Schildkraut.

The Texas rules now more clearly distinguish between lockdown drills, which are required, and active-threat exercises, which are voluntary and can involve re-creating aspects of a shooting.

A drill doesn’t involve fake injuries or gunshot sounds. Instead, students either talk through what to do, or practice activities like turning off the lights, locking doors, and staying quiet and away from windows.

Active-threat exercises, which are intended to train first responders, might involve realistic depictions of injured students or loud sounds. They give officials in different jurisdictions a chance to plan a coordinated response, said Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center. But schools need to plan those simulations carefully without requiring student participation, she said.

The new regulations require schools to tailor drills and exercises to students’ ages and development, but they focus on creating guardrails for active threat exercises. Students aren’t banned from participating in exercises, a move some gun safety and parents’ groups wanted. But the rules advise schools to carry them out during a time when students are not on campus. They also require that everyone involved be given adequate notice before an exercise and a public announcement be made immediately before, so that no participants confuse a simulation with an actual shooter.

The measure, which also orders school districts to find ways to minimize potential trauma to students and staffers, such as consulting mental health professionals while planning the drills, was in effect during the previous school year. But the Texas Education Agency didn’t finalize rules until this year.

The clarifications come as schools renew their focus on safety. “Especially everything that came out of Uvalde, this legislation is more important than ever,” Ordaz Perez said.

The measure is a sign of incremental progress, but it is not comprehensive, said Blair Taylor, an advocate at Moms Demand Action in Texas, a nonprofit that focuses on ending gun violence. She wants the Texas legislature to do more to prevent school shootings from taking place at all.

These are “band-aids for bullet holes,” Taylor said. “We are not addressing the actual problem of easy access to guns and toxic gun culture.”

The Texas American Federation of Teachers is creating posters to make sure teachers know about the new rules, so they can file any complaints to school districts. But the Texas regulations don’t specify punitive measures if districts fail to comply.

The San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District has no plans to change how it conducts drills this year, said Doug Wozniak, the district’s director of safety and health services.

Once a semester, students are instructed to hide in a corner silently while first responders go through the hallways and “lightly jiggle” classroom doorknobs, he said. Officers then yell, “Police, open up.” Students with special needs aren’t exempt from these lockdown drills, he said, but officers try to check on classrooms with those students first so that they can quickly resume class.

After the drill, students, teachers, and first responders gather in the cafeteria to debrief.

But even jiggling doorknobs might be too much like a simulation for many students, particularly those who are younger or have experienced a previous shooting, some experts say.

When schools simulate any aspect of a shooting, they can potentially make students feel unsafe on school grounds, said M. Aurora Vasquez, vice president of state policy and engagement for Sandy Hook Promise.

“The anxiety starts to sit with them on a regular basis when they go to school,” she said.

Texas limits the number of all types of drills that school districts should perform to 16 per school year, but many argue that lockdown drills don’t need to be conducted frequently.

“When you start doing these drills every month, which some school districts require, then it starts to suggest they are relatively likely,” said David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “That is a bad perception for kids.”

Many students say that the way Texas schools are currently conducting drills has a lasting impact. Jackson’s daughter is on the autism spectrum. Before August, she was never worried about a bedroom intruder. “She’s never been afraid of monsters; she’s never been afraid of the dark,” said Jackson. Afterward, that changed.

Between the Uvalde shooting and the regularity of drills, Giampaolo said, he and many of his peers feel uneasy in school this year. “We literally just want to go to school and not worry about being shot,” he said.

Kelly said she understands the necessity of school shooter preparedness, but it’s been difficult for her son.

“I don’t even know what the answer is, and I think that’s where I feel so powerless in this fight,” she said. “The kids are taking the brunt of bad decisions.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Amfortas the hippie

    we’ve got the scanner on all the time, here(analog, so can’t hear the cops since Homeland Security Grants circa 2006).
    first time they did one of these drills here, the scanner chick botched it, and it scared the fuck out of me.
    right after a chemo-day, so wife was home, and she had everyone’s cell #…so we quickly cleared it up.
    texas long ago forgot how to do anything meaningful and well for the public, so i suppose it’s par for the course.
    of note, within 10-15 minutes, a bunch of the local manly men had encircled the school with deer rifles and ar’s, etc.
    we lucked out that extreme stupidity didn’t ensue.

  2. The Rev Kev

    These active shooter drill seem to be the 21st century equivalent of the ‘duck & cover’ nuclear drills that the US had in the 20th century. Several commenters have mentioned in the past having to do them as kids. So they can already see how some of these active shooter drills are traumatizing kids and making them flip out. So, at the risk of being seen to assign homework, has anybody heard of any studies done to see what the effect was on American kids doing these drills throughout their childhood. We never had them in Oz so don’t really know firsthand what they were like.

    1. marym

      One thing that may be different in how children would react is that duck and cover drills were for something unimaginable to most children of that era. Active shooter drills are for something that’s probably easier to imagine (and fear), because of the technology of school shootings, and the fact that they continue to happen. Another possible difference is that I’ve never heard of the drills including “simulations” and “debriefings” as referenced in the post.

      1. Janie

        Yes. I was in junior high in the midwest. We went into the halls, knelt face to wall and covered the backs of our necks. We thought it was silly, but you got out of a boring lesson and had a chance to practice your cute walk in your new poodle circular skirt

      2. B24S

        Unimaginable? To whom? My wife, a few years older than I, was, in modern terms, traumatized by the thought of how little those glass windows at school would do to protect her. The Cuban Missile Crises was the cherry on top; she still talks about it. She says that’s when she realized there’s no safety anywhere.

        As for me, despite Civil Defense drills and bomb shelter hype, I was a little young to comprehend the immediate and total threat of the CMC, but I was quite aware of my parents fears, and spent many years making drawings of mushroom clouds.

        Was this fear only on the East coast NYC/DC corridor, and not the rest of the country?

        And then we got Vietnam as a follow-up. Neither of us expected to live to 25.

        1. marym

          I won’t dispute anyone’s personal memories. I do think kids in the 2K’s have a much more realistic idea of what a school shooting would be like, because it’s actually happening and because of the specificity of the preparations, than children in the 50’s had of nuclear war.

          Anyway, following up on Rev Kev’s comment I did find a 2018 post which says there aren’t formal studies, but talks about some of the impact.

          What did those “young minds” learn, over the years of being led through duck-and-cover drills by studiously cheerful teachers? And what did school civil defense teach their parents? We don’t have systematic studies on the subject; we do have plenty of telling anecdote and conjecture. Historian Dee Garrison has argued that protests against civil defense were central in the creation of the anti-nuclear movement and that civil defense in schools was particularly radicalizing…Some of those children ended up participating in the social movements of the late 1960s through the early 1980s. A number of activists have pinpointed school civil defense efforts as their radicalizing moment.


          1. B24S

            I agree with you on that. In the 50s/60s all we had were photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to inform us of the results, whereas children now have the glory of social media and tv to show them what to expect. Over and over again.

            My part of town was West Side Story territory, and the only guns in those days were in the hands of cops and gangsters.

            Thank you for the Slate excerpt. My wife commented that I’d forgotten to mention that the experience directly led to her having a particularly cynical view of our governments’ commitment to our welfare. I do remember going on Ban the Bomb marches in NYC in the late 50s, holding onto my sisters’ stroller. As the song goes, one thing leads to another….

    2. KLG

      This week is the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was in the second grade, and the end of the world was on everyone’s mind, from age 6 on up. Scary times. The air raid siren was atop a water tower near our house, tested once a month. An uncle built a fallout shelter in his back yard after the stare down with the Soviet Union. This was a large cylindrical metal tank with 4 bunk beds and a few racks of Campbell’s soup. No power, no water, and the toilet was a 5-gallon bucket. Even as a 7-year-old I thought he was nuts.

      Don’t know of studies of long-term effects on children of my generation, but most of us thought that hiding under our school desks would not save us in the event the “evildoers” sent their bombs our way. After we read Hiroshima by John Hersey in the 6th grade we had no doubt it was all theater. Would a Southern public school system even allow Hiroshima these days? Or the Ray Bradbury story “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains”? One completely subversive 8th-grade English teacher had us read Johnny Got His Gun. Those were the days. Not a peep out of a parent as far as we knew.

      1. digi_owl

        And again i find myself pondering if 60 years is how long institutional memory lasts, given that “we” seem to be throwing the world into a rerun of that crisis.

    3. rjs

      i did the duck and cover drills until i was 6 or 7; we crouched on the east side of an internal concrete block wall; downtown Cleveland, the presumed target, was 15 miles to the west…we were warned not to look in that direction when the bomb went off, lest we be blinded by the flash…

      i don’t remember being particularly traumatized, though, and if other kids were i didn’t know about it….i imagine every generation had its active shooter drills, going back to the time kids had to be cautioned about whatever wild animal lurked in the environs that might attack them…

  3. polar donkey

    A couple weeks ago there was a tik tok challenge to call in active shooter at your school. Someone called in to a high school in north Mississippi. Cops arrived within 3 minutes storming the building. Kids were running and jumping out windows. The middle school around the corner loaded everyone on buses and went to the fire station. How twitter, Facebook, and other tech companies can censor things whenever they want, but tik tok can’t censor active shooter pranks is a little hard to understand.
    Is there any proof active shooter actually reduce carnage? High school kids just head out the doors and windows at first sign of trouble now because they have been told all their lives someone will be coming to gun you down at school. Little kids may hide in the classroom. Most active shooters went through these drills and know this, like the one in Vavalde. My kids’ school have supply boxes in classroom closets in case of siege. Siege! Wtf? You mean cops afraid to go in to stop the shooter. Millions of kids and faculty have to go through these active shooter drills because we chose not to regulate gun distribution to crazy people.

  4. Percy41

    There should be no such emergency “active shooter” drills involving children K-12. Instead prepare and drill those responsible for protecting them, including teachers, regularly — on- and off-site, but generally out of children’s sight. Children should see only that they are being protected. Then remind them periodically that they must do exactly what they are told to do by responsible adults in the event of a school emergency, and just how they will be alerted to one should it occur (bell ringing, tec.). That’s it. Nothing more. If some fearful parents want more let them spout off about it in school board meetings. Traumatizing children is inevitable if these drills involve them so don’t do that. The real problems is the inadequacy of training and preparation of the protectors, not the children.

    1. JBird4049

      IIRC, the average chances of being struck by lightning or shot at school are roughly the same. Yes, the odds of the former is for the entire population while the latter is for the children and teachers; I think shows that much of the “discussion” about safety is really about ratcheting the fear up each year in our society.

      It is like the TSA security theater that I have to enjoy each time I fly, which does almost nothing to make us safer, but it is a fabulous way to instill fear and obedience. So, now we have these drills that also do almost nothing to make children safe, but it is a fabulous way to instill terror and obedience.

      It is as if we all must live in a gigantic prison with locked doors, armed guards, buried in fears while always looking for new ways to be “safe.” We can never be safe, not in the way we are looking for, but we can certainly be destroyed by the search.

      What is that old comics quote: we have met the enemy and he is us?

      1. JBird4049

        *What is that old comics quote: we have met the enemy and he is us?

        Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo

      2. amos untermench

        your right, JBIRD, all these useless tests are to instill fear and obedience. The USA has a homicidal culture and instead facing it and combating it historically, the trend to accomidate it. The interests of US power and the American people are increasingly diverse, the former clashing with the latter. Just as war unites and disciplines a population, domestic homicide increases the fear of death which increases the plea to authority to save us. The plea is to homicidal authority.

        if instead the kids were taught to oppose homicidal strategies in foreign and domestic policy, this would eventually end the homicidal culture. Unfortunately this teaching and telling cannot be effective without transforming or replacing the US power system which promotes directly and indirectly promotes the homicide.

  5. Molon labe

    Catholic grammar school in the 60s. “Duck and cover” in the lower grades became “bend over, put your head between your knees, and kiss your a$$ goodbye” around 6th grade. We were told that being under our desks would protect us from debris. There were no illusions about surviving a nuclear attack.

    We were also shown explicit films of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–not just the blast damage, but peeling skin, blindness, and radiation sickness. Excerpts from Shoah rounded it out. The nuns showed us what they could. What we took from it was up to us.

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