On August 3, just after 8 a.m., a gunman in a green hoodie, dark sunglasses, and a camouflage face mask quietly entered Boyle County High School, located outside Danville, Kentucky. He dropped a small explosive by a side door, entered the cafeteria, and began firing rounds from his shotgun.
Bodies piled up as he moved methodically through the hallways, squeezing the trigger, taking 10 steps, squeezing again. By the time local law enforcement shot and killed him, dozens of motionless bodies were strewn across the tile floor, their clothes soaked with blood.
Fortunately, none of the injuries were real. Not the bullets. Not the bomb. Boyle County High School was the site of an active shooter drill, one of many similar trainings held at schools across the country that aim to prepare teachers, students, and, in some cases, first responders for the worst.
The percentage of public schools running such drills, which include everything from extravagant Michael Bay–style productions to low-key lockdowns, was nearly 95 percent in 2015–2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And that was before 17 students were killed in February at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
Within months, Iowa, Florida, and South Carolina had all passed laws mandating such drills in schools, joining six other states that already had similar laws on the books. Business is booming for ALICE Training, the leader in active shooter defense instruction, which just opened a new headquarters in Ohio. For $589, the company puts individuals through two days of classes, then sends them back to their school or place of work to train everyone else. Its customers include some 4,000 K-12 schools and nearly 1,000 higher-education institutions, making it the biggest (but not the only) company providing the service.
The push to protect schools from mass shooters, and to make a buck off the hysteria around them, has also inspired a whole new array of tactical gear, from bulletproof whiteboards to safe rooms that are installed inside classrooms. Some schools are spending big to install gunshot-detection systems, line their hallways with cameras linked directly to the local police station, and hire social media monitoring firms. In July, a school safety conference held in Nevada drew more than 1,000 attendees, the most in a decade, along with a record 77 vendors hawking devices that incapacitate intruders, turn laptops into bulletproof shields, and allow a group of students to be locked down in their classroom for days. All the while, the Department of Education (DOE) is considering whether to arm teachers, and state lawmakers are prioritizing the so-called hardening of schools, even if they have to borrow the money or go into debt to do it.
As demand for such school safety measures soars, an important question remains unanswered: Do active shooter drills and beefed-up security measures make a difference? There’s little data to show they do and some evidence that they can make things worse. At Stoneman Douglas, for example, the shooter is said to have used his knowledge of the school’s lockdown procedures to rack up more casualties during his assault. The biggest concern for some experts, though, is that the vast majority of schoolchildren, whose classrooms will never come under attack, are left worse off after they’re made to seriously contemplate their deaths at the hands of a madman.
“We don’t teach them to go sit in a corner and wait to be passive and static.”
Active shooter drills “can be very traumatizing for students,” says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University and an outspoken critic of the trend. “Particularly if they are staged in a very realistic manner with fake blood and guns loaded with blanks, running around the school, chasing students. It’s a constant reminder that the bad guys are out to get them.”
If the data on the approach’s success is spotty and its effects potentially harmful, why then are active shooter drills becoming as common in schools as the morning pledge? Why are legislators increasingly providing for them at a time when teachers routinely spend hundreds of their own dollars to purchase supplies for their classrooms? And why are more holistic solutions, such as those addressing the mental health of the entire student population, not prioritized instead?
“Schools are in a difficult position,” Fox says. “They feel that they should do something.” Active shooter drills are a quick, understandable way to prepare for a school shooting, and law enforcement can conduct them in a couple hours on a Tuesday morning. The drills make people, particularly the lawmakers, administrators, and parents who don’t have to endure them, feel safe, even if they’re not making children much safer at all.