When Schools Ask Kids To Do The Dance of Death

Brenna Demands
May 25, 2018 · 8 min read
Turn off the lights. Be quiet. Huddle together. Stay calm. Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.

As a followup to this story, something has to be changed in the way we walk our children through how to behave during an active shooter situation. It’s not just about sheltering them from the ‘harsh reality’ of the world, it’s about changing their perception of risk from something that will ‘eventually happen’ to feeling like it is a 1 in a million chance.

In Anna Moffit’s excellent article, she highlights the effects that repeated, active shooter drills have on students: “By teaching young children that they are always in danger, we are preventing them from developing one of the basic human needs: the sense of feeling safe.” This mentality has had a ripple effect across an entire generation, with long-lasting impacts on childrens’ ability to focus and learn effectively at school. And I am one mother who is on a crusade to change this.

We are at the point in our country where there exist Good Housekeeping Tips to teach to your kids for active shooter situations (not a parody). The advice comes from the Department of Homeland Security to Run. Hide. Fight. But do children really need to practice this under realistic circumstances to be prepared for an emergency? One Kindergarten teacher said,

“I’ve had some [kids] burst out crying when I first start talking about it,” says Edwards. “So you stress that it’s pretend and a drill. We make it a game by picking out the quietest one, to get them in that mode of being still and quiet. One sound and that might make [the shooter] want to come in.”

Demanding complete silence in the dark, hiding in closets or under desks, rattling doorknobs and banging on doors, telling students if, for example, they coughed during a drill “that if this had been real, we would all be dead” is NOT normal. None of this is normal. As James Hamblin writes in What Are Active-Shooter Drills Doing to Kids?:

“It’s good to do emergency drills, but active shooters are not a drill anyone should have to do,” says Meredith Corley, who taught math in Colorado in the aftermath of Columbine. “It re-traumatizes kids who have experienced violence. Getting the kids settled back into the work of learning after lockdown drills is a nightmare. That mind-set has no place in a learning environment.”


And it is not just the fear, confusion, tears, and racing heartbeats in that moment that negatively affect children, (as recently described by one teacher in heart-breaking detail) but there are lasting impacts once these drills are over. Repeated intruder drills create a pattern that works its way into children’s drawings, into their dramatic play, and into their nightmares as they try to deal with these fear-provoking experiences.

Sabrina Vourvoulias wrote about how shooting situations are traumatic to children — even when they are just drills based on her personal experience. In her article, she detailed how the active shooter drills of her childhood in war-torn Guatemala left her with “hyper-vigilance, hair trigger fight-or-flight responses, chronic worry, stress headaches, and anxiety” as a result of having to practice running for her life over and over again.

The same trauma can also happen to adults who have been put through active shooter trainings — “Far from creating an army of first responders, these drills often leave teachers and other participants hysterical,” even causing some to quit their jobs entirely. And when it comes to recruiting new college students to the field of education, the numbers are at an all-time low with fewer than 1 in 10 pursuing a teaching career right now. The fear of active shooters in schools has become ingrained in their minds, and exacerbates our current teacher shortages.

I really hope that in my lifetime that these active shooter drills will be looked back upon as antiquated relics of the domestic terror era, just like the ‘duck and cover’ drills of the 50s and 60s of the cold war era. That there will be a time when children rehearsing their own deaths by a gunman is no longer a normal behavior woven into the American school experience. Even our current NRA-backed president said after the Parkland shooting that he didn’t like active shooter drills:

The President (2/22/2018): I’ll be honest with you. I mean, if I’m a child and I’m 10 years old, and they say, we’re going to have an active shooter drill, I say, “What’s that?” “Well, people may come in and shoot you.” I think that’s a very negative thing to be talking about, to be honest with you. I don’t like it.


The Lockdown Drill book — The modern day Bert the Turtle from Duck and Cover

So what should schools be doing? Dr. Stephen Brock, author of School Crisis Prevention and Intervention: The PREPaRE Model, has said that the number one safety precaution is a classroom door that can be locked from the inside, and there is little evidence that students going through realistic drills (like ALICE) have any additional benefits:

“I don’t know how it got to be that people thought that it was a good idea to train elementary grade, primary grade, first grade students to fight back against an armed intruder… Schools are arguably one of the safest places for our young people to be. I don’t want schools to come to be viewed as horribly violent, fatally flawed institutions, because that’s not the case.”

Given these recommendations, below is a sample letter I have put together that parents can use to let their schools know how they feel about the lockdown/intruder/active shooter practices the school may have in place.

Dear teacher,

You know my son, he’s the goofy one who likes to make people laugh and gives hugs just a little too tight. He has problems with anxiety as well as sensory processing issues, and these are mostly manageable under normal circumstances. And yet I have a child who tells me nightly as I tuck him into bed that he doesn’t want to die, and that if he does, he wants to come back as a cat so he can still be with his family forever.

I do not want to add to his fears by purposefully exposing him to any intruder/active shooter drills that the school may be planning. Here are my suggestions not only for him, but considerations to be made for all students.

Each school should have an emergency management plan on which school staff receive training. Emergency drills are important, for fires, tornadoes, earthquakes — situations where teachers and students know where to go and what to do. And yet students and teachers have been able to successfully do these types of drills without needing to simulate smoke and fire, break windows, and knock over bookshelves for it to seem ‘realistic.’ Intruder/active shooter drills should be discontinued in their current form if they involve pretending someone is in the hallway, banging on doors, shooting blanks, or having police come in. There is not much added benefit for teachers and students to act this out, and it is more likely for there to be lasting negative emotional, psychological, and physical effects.

As a policy, all parents should be informed in advance if and when intruder/active shooter drills are scheduled, and have the right to opt out their child at that time. If parents are allowed to excuse their children from sex education because they don’t want them to be exposed to ideas that they consider ‘too adult’ for them, then it should also be an option for parents to excuse their children from participating in drills that require pretending that someone is coming into their class to kill them. If a school chooses to perform these realistic intruder/active shooter drills, I will keep my child home that day.

All classroom doors should be able to be locked from the inside. Lockdown drills should simply involve the first phase of locking the classroom door and having students follow the teacher’s directions, without being forced to hide or huddle together. Locking interior doors is still one of the most effective tools to prevent death in mass casualty school shootings. Having children get under their desks and into closets and stay perfectly quiet is unnecessary for these drills, and serve to heighten anxieties and fears.

Identify student volunteers who want to be emergency leaders. There will be some students who self-identify, based on age and maturity, as the ones who would jump to assist the teachers in the case of an actual emergency. Like when passengers choose to sit in the aisle with the exit door on a plane, they could be separately provided with additional information on what might happen in the next phase of a lockdown. The next phase might involve creating a barricade in front of the door or opening an outside window to help others evacuate. What is important here is that there is a choice that can be made by students to volunteer for more realistic intruder/active shooter drills (if that is part of the school plan.) It is not an experience that should be imposed upon all students, especially at the younger grade levels.

For all students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs), also create supplemental Individualized Emergency and Lockdown Plans (IELPs). Schools must develop individual plans that take into account a range of students including those in wheelchairs, with hearing or visual impairments, and who have sensory processing issues or autism. Teachers should read this guide for supporting students with disabilities during school crises, and as parents, we need assurances “that our children won’t be punished or disciplined for not getting it right the first time” if they make noise or move around when drills occur.

Thank you for listening to my concerns,

From one parent who wants to end America’s lockdown culture

I’m sure there is much more to be added by people with educational policy experience, but this is my first step towards creating a new future for schooling in our country. If we were able to get rid of duck and cover drills, I believe we can eventually get rid of active shooter drills. There has to be a better way to do school safety in the future, because I reject this as an ‘acceptable’ reality for our children.


Shout out to Katherine Sanger (The Kids We Forget About When We Talk About Active Shooter Drills) and Jennifer McCue (How Do I Keep My ASD Son Safe From An Active Shooter?) who are warrior mothers in their own right and who helped inspire this post.

Brenna Demands

Written by

Feminist. Activist. Writer. Mom. PhD.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade