Every decision a school makes centers on this equation - is this what’s best for the community? Of course, it’s a complex world and these decisions are rarely so cut and dried. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of security threats on campus and the tools schools use to protect against them. Recently, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association released a report on this topic in collaboration with Everytown for Gun Safety. You can read the full report here.

The Joffe team wanted to weigh in and contextualize a key takeaway from this piece. Much of the discussion has focused on the report’s recommendation to avoid doing lockdown drills in schools. From our perspective, the report actually recommends that schools build a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to protecting their community from this threat. While we don’t agree that schools should avoid lockdown drills entirely, we do strongly believe that lockdown drills need to be part of a comprehensive effort to keep campuses safe, and cannot be the entirety of a school’s preparation.

For example, the report touches on other preventative measures schools can build into their planning that have been demonstrated to effectively improve community safety. A multi-disciplinary threat assessment team provides schools with the ability to identify potentially dangerous situations and intervene before they escalate. Similarly, effective school security (that focuses on communication, has clearly defined responsibilities, and is well-trained) is one of the most impactful ways to address school safety. You can read more about what we think makes for good school security here.

To be clear, it is our belief that well-designed lockdown drills are an essential part of a school’s safety toolkit. The key is to set clear guidelines that govern how and when a school will use lockdowns as part of the overall emergency response plan. The report lists the following six factors as most essential - we’ve added some additional thoughts intended to push your thinking on the subject.

  • 1. Drills should not include simulations that mimic an actual incident.
    • Anything designed to provoke a fearful response has no place in these drills. It is relevant and important for schools to “test the system” and ensure that the plan works and that all staff are following protocols. If you do plan to test locks or knock on doors, make sure the community knows these tests are coming.
  • 2. Parents should have advance notice of drills.
    • The key word when dealing with the parent community on this topic is “trust”, and getting there takes time. Until most parents feel as though they understand the big picture around school safety, they should be notified in advance of these drills. Once that trust is built, parents should be aware about general processes on campus, and they should know that drills may occur throughout the year without parental notice, but notification before every drill is not needed.
  • 3. Drills should be announced to students and educators prior to the start.
    • This is a best practice that will help mitigate the aura of fear that comes with these drills. It’s also simple to implement - a basic PA message announcing the drill does the trick.
  • 4. Schools should create age and developmentally appropriate drill content with the involvement of school personnel, including school-based mental health professionals.
    • It’s important to be able to discuss lockdown drills with students and to do so in an appropriate manner. For example, for a group of young students, a school might frame a drill as “what we would do to keep ourselves safe if a swarm of bees came on our campus” or another less-frightening scenario. Read our blog post for a bit more on this subject.
  • 5. Schools should couple drills with trauma-informed approaches to address students’ well-being.
    • We agree. For more, read our article about adapting lockdown drills to the unique needs of particular students.
  • 6. Schools should track data about the efficacy and effects of drills.
    • Yes, they should. One way to do this is to make a practice of following up every drill with a survey for faculty and staff, to assess their understanding of processes, their ability to perform required actions, and their wellbeing and concerns.

One more guideline that we think is relevant to flag - many of the schools we work with have asked us about the efficacy of staff-only lockdown drills. The answer certainly depends on the unique culture of a community. There’s no doubt that staff-only drills can be useful in preparation. However, we also want to recognize the value that is derived from having students participate in these drills. It prepares students on what to expect during a lockdown, but more importantly, it prepares staff members for what it’s like to take necessary actions while also being responsible for students.

Without clear and specific guidelines governing how schools are preparing for a security threat, “students and educators are required to participate in drills that vary dramatically across America’s schools.” Not only that, the task of designing individual school guidelines generally falls either on an overstretched school employee or on someone who doesn’t fully understand the unique circumstances of the school.

It is true that on their own, lockdown drills are an incomplete answer to the problem of protecting school communities from security threats. This does not mean they aren’t a critical component of a school’s solutions! In concert with emergency response training, programs like threat assessment, and staff members who feel empowered to take action, lockdown drills help keep schools safe.

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