Against Active Shooter Drills

Epistemic Status: You really, really should know this already. Reference post.

We have a $2.7 billion industry devoted to causing traumatizing children.

They refer to it as ‘active shooter drill training.’

I was initially motivated to write this when I saw a claim that the bipartisan gun deal allocated $5 billion in additional funding for causing childhood trauma. That turned out not to be the case (summaries of the deal from NPR, from CNN and from WaPo don’t mention it and it seems too big to have been overlooked if it was real), but these shooter drills are still traumatizing our children on a regular basis, which seems worth pointing out as another prime example of both our civilization losing its mind and also the existence of extremely low-hanging fruit.

As in, we could simply not traumatize our kids all the time for no reason. Crazy, I know.

For those who don’t know, an ‘active shooter drill’ is where they take young children who are forced by law to be at a given location each day, and periodically teach have them practice hiding and being shot at by a mass shooter.

If your response to that idea is ‘what, what, that sounds horrible and terrifying and we should absolutely positively not do that’ then you seem like a normal human to me.

If your response to that idea is ‘yes this will help protect our children’ then I do not understand you.

Yet these drills are required. Since school is also required, this is something the state is forcing on children. Children are being forced to report periodically for trauma.

This is so much worse than wasted time. If I am told that one of my children is going to have such a drill, I will keep my child home from school that day, this seems like what a parent who cares about their child would do.

If the school does not consider this an acceptable solution, I will pull them out of that school entirely. It’s not only a one-time thing, they think this is an important thing that they practice continuously.

All the replies are like this, of parents reporting children coming back from drills terrified. I have tried to argue against Gain of Function research and against constructing an unfriendly AGI, and had to talk various players out of some truly epically bad deck choices, but I have never, ever seen anything like as clear a case of something you absolutely positively and obviously should not be doing.

This Washington Post article has a variety of reactions to drills. Some of them are about how shameful it is that we have people shooting up schools in the first place, but mostly it’s about how these drills primary effect is clearly to traumatize students.

Yet this has ballooned into an industry, due to our demand to do something:

I do not need a study to say that this ‘may’ do more harm than good, and neither do you.

Once again, the problem of actual shootings is terrible but the magnitude is simply not that large. It (once again) bears keeping in mind the magnitude of the problem:

The database documents when a gun is brandished, a gun is fired, or a bullet hits K-12 school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day, or day of week. There have been 1,322 individual shootings since the 1970s, resulting in 426 deaths and 1,225 injuries.

Or, alternatively, there is one live shooting incident in a given school every 6,000 years, with an average of less than one death out of an average school size of slightly more than 500 students.

Even if active shooter drills were 100% effective at preventing deaths from school shootings, as opposed to being useless or (more likely) highly actively counterproductive even on that front, it would still be completely criminally insane to subject kids to this kind of trauma.

The Study

For those who do not believe that evidence exists unless it comes in the form of a study or report, or who want to know exactly how much damage is being done here, the good news is we do have a study and a report on the study. The bad news is, well, the report’s contents. And also the study’s contents.

Not that it is entirely news, but the magnitude of the impact is I suppose news.

The results were sobering: Active shooter drills in schools are associated with increases in depression (39%), stress and anxiety (42%), and physiological health problems (23%) overall, including children from as young as five years old up to high schoolers, their parents, and teachers. Concerns over death increased by 22 percent, with words like blood, pain, clinics, and pills becoming a consistent feature of social media posts in school communities in the 90 days after a school drill.

In particular:

Using machine-learning psychological affect classifiers informed by prior research, this study aggregated and analyzed the sentiments expressed through millions of tweets and more than 1,000 Reddit posts. Results revealed that social media posts displayed a 42 percent increase in anxiety and stress from pre- to post-drills (as evidenced by an increase in such words as afraid, struggling, and nervous) and a 39 percent increase in depression (evidenced by words such as therapy, cope, irritability, suicidal) following drills.

This research unveiled alarming impacts of active shooter drills on the mental health of the students, teachers, and parents who experience them. In their current state, active shooter drills threaten the wellbeing of entire school communities over prolonged periods of time, leaving those who are affected in need of continued support to process their aftermath.

This study suggests that physical health may be significantly impacted by active shooter drills in schools as well. In the 90 days following a drill, concerns over health increased by 23 percent and concerns over death increased by 22 percent. The analysis revealed words like blood, pain, clinics, and pills came up with jarring frequency, suggesting that drills may have a direct impact on participants’ physical health or, at the very least, made it a persistent topic of concern.

This isn’t the methodology we would have hoped for, but it is the one we have and the results very much qualify under the ‘hot damn look at this chart’ test.

We get typical quotes like this:

I can tell you personally, just as an educator, we were not okay [after drills]. We were in bathrooms crying, shaking, not sleeping for months. The consensus from my friends and peers is that we are not okay.”

K–12 teacher


“[After drills, kids] think a villain is coming to school and wonder when it’s happening, not if it’s happening”

K–12 parent

As usual, somehow the conclusion is unwilling to quite come out and say the obvious.

In the absence of any conclusive evidence on drills’ effectiveness at ensuring safety during actual active shooter incidents, Everytown urges school decisionmakers to assess whether the potential but unproven benefits of these drills outweigh their known collateral consequences.

This is still madness. What is the maximum potential upside here? Again, it certainly can’t be more than 100% prevention of school shootings, and we know it is much much less than that.

In light of this study’s findings, Everytown strongly encourages school systems to prioritize these proven school safety strategies above active shooter drills.

Comprehensive school safety plans require far more than periodic active shooter drills.

Prioritize other measures over traumatizing children? Requires ‘far more than’? This is a report that lays out in detail how traumatizing drills are for kids, notes their benefits are entirely unproven (and of course, couldn’t possibly make up for this) and then urge prioritization?

  1. We must do something.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore we must do it.

No. We mustn’t. I’d also rather we not deploy drones.

They go on to say, if you must traumatize your kids, how about traumatizing them less efficiently via these recommendations:

  1. Drills should not include simulations that mimic an actual incident;
  2. Parents should have advance notice of drills;
  3. Drills should be announced to students and educators prior to the start;
  4. Schools should create age and developmentally appropriate drill content with the involvement of school personnel, including school-based mental health professionals;
  5. Schools should couple drills with trauma-informed approaches to address students’ wellbeing both during the drills, and over a sustained period thereafter; and
  6. Schools should track data about the efficacy and effects of drills.

So if you are determined to traumatize children, you should then spend tons of time dealing with the trauma you’ve caused, involve extensive materials related to mental health professionals, and provide notice of the trauma to come, and track the effects.

So, I mean, yeah, I guess if I had no choice but to traumatize children I would do that?

One particular thing that was sometimes done was to have pretend gunmen roaming the halls firing blanks. I think we mostly realized not to do that.

There are also additional reasons to think drills are even worse than this.

  1. Drills teach children that they live in a world where deadly school shootings are are something they should expect to happen in their lives, which they aren’t. This functions to put the idea of shooting up a school closer to top of mind and to normalize it as a choice. It lets disturbed kids at risk of doing this see what it would look like, and maybe discover they like it, or that other kids deserve it.
  2. I propose that traumatized kids, kids who despise their schools for damn good reason, or those who are constantly among others with trauma, are going to more often choose to do crazy horrible things like shoot up the school.
  3. Drills show potential shooters exactly how everyone will react. This alone plausibly allows them to plan the most effective response measures in ways that more than nullify any benefits from the drill.
  4. Drills teach children exactly how much the system and the adults around them care about them. They’ll respond accordingly.
  5. Drills, preparing for drills, dealing with the aftermath of drills and all the resulting focus on such matters takes a lot of time away from learning, to the extent that was a thing school was trying to do.

What to do about this?

On a civilization level, we should stop doing this. At minimum we should do less traumatic versions of it, ideally stop causing trauma for no reason. I’m an idealist.

On a personal level, you should do a few things.

  1. Ensure that any schools you send your children to are informed about how terrible all of this is. They may or may not be permitted to stop or make changes, but it’s worth a shot.
  2. Ensure all relevant authority figures at all levels also know how terrible this is and how much you oppose this.
  3. Ask when the drills are. Keep your children out of school on those days.
  4. If they won’t tell you when the drills are, ideally figure it out, things that look random often aren’t.
  5. If you can’t figure it out at all, strongly consider your other educational options.

That last one sounds dramatic, but the effects here seem quite large and quite bad, and also likely to be indicative of other problems. If a school is run by people who are not willing to help me not traumatize my child, this is not where I want my child spending the bulk of their day. If they think it is necessary, this is not where I want my child learning to think or do mathematics.

I would extend this logic to the presence of police, or metal detectors, or any other militarization of a school. Any place where such measures are actually necessary is not a place to put children. Also, no, nothing involving doors will meaningfully help.

There are a variety of other approaches also being debated. I am not here taking any position on them either way. This is about avoiding the obviously horrible option.

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11 Responses to Against Active Shooter Drills

  1. Craken says:

    I’m surprised by the size of this industry and the prevalence of this truly idiotic activity. If we have good investigative journalists in this country, this ought to qualify as a fully non-partisan subject to pursue. There are also lawyers in the world; this is abuse without demonstrable purpose. The Nature piece said 95% of public schools ran these drills as of 2015-16. Lemmings. I wonder if this activity has spread to private schools. I know it has not spread to the private provision of education within the household.

    • Charles says:

      I’m not surprised. The point is to make children afraid of shootings and guns. What’s surprising is they aren’t doing mock executions yet.

  2. Alex N says:

    If we consider that
    1. evil exists and
    2. getting exposed to this fact first hand *will* cause transient (or even lasting) depressing effect.

    Then these drills are not unlike a vaccine with side effects. The question is, what is the value of these drills? I don’t think we have any idea, since the events are so rare.

    However, I don’t personally place too much weight on “we were upset” kind of reports from social media. Yes, some teachers and kids were upset. Others may have found it fun, but they aren’t the problem. Not being upset isn’t the goal, unless it causes actual persistent damage.

    • Skivverus says:

      I think the point here is that this isn’t a “vaccine” so much as “pre-emptive radiation treatment for eye cancer”: even at its theoretical utopian best it would be solving a rare* problem, and its current implementations are both causing the problem to become less rare and more severe, and doing other damage besides.

      *Note: I have not actually checked on the rate of eye cancer. I assume it is low, and horrifying when it does occur for the same reason cancer in other visible important organs is horrifying.

      • Alex N says:

        Let me try to make my point better.

        I agree, the problem of school shootings is indeed rare. The problem of violence in general is very much not rare. The price of failure in these events can be very high, and making the right decision often carries a big difference.

        During an extreme violent event, an unconditioned brain often stops working properly. The difference between expectation and reality for unconditioned person is vast, and also unexpectedly so. It is an unknown unknown to most people.

        So I could view these drills as not so much technical preparation for a school shooting, as general exposure and conditioning for the effects of extreme shock on the brain.

        In that case, an unpleasant short term shock is not a side effect – is it an integral necessary part.

        Of course, as such, these drills are vastly underdone. So their value is probably low to zero. Also, a post-mortem would be required to process and internalize the exposure in order to extract the value. But that’s a different issue.

        My son starts school. When I think it is time, I’ll tell him to approach these as a game and have fun.

        • Basil Marte says:

          On the one hand, yes, most people would freeze (or do other unhelpful things) if suddenly faced with violence. On the other hand:
          – Holding investment, competence, etc. constant, there is a roughly fixed number of skills that society can make approximately universal. We have have literacy, basic numeracy(?), and… er… um… automobile driving. Even if we had a form of it that didn’t have any harmful side effects, “violence training” would not exactly be at the top of the list.
          – There already exist approximate implementations, ranging from combat sports like HEMA, through video games, to even bullying, which is possibly still less harmful than active shooter drills, because at least most adults don’t endorse it.
          – Even for the purpose you claim, these drills are worse than nothing. The children are explicitly taught to freeze/hide! Taking an anecdote as representative, one of the tweets had a girl who tried to help others with some detail (i.e. show initiative) get yelled at. Military training (in effect) would be to teach children to fan out and counterattack. This is not a proposal, in practice schools would implement something worse than useless (they’d start by making a rubric by which to grade initiative), but in theory there could be a form of this that I would endorse as useful, worth the opportunity cost (and also fun).

          To make a weird analogy, imagine the plot of a fairly standard young adult novel. It begins with the setting “the bad guys had won, currently our people are subjugated/etc.”, the protagonist(s) set out to change that, and in the end generally win. This might involve being saved by the cavalry, but in the meantime the protagonist(s) have been doing stuff. A story with the plot “we started out as defeated, then did nothing to change that, then suddenly somehow the cavalry arrived and set things right” would be a terrible read and is an even worse lesson to teach. (Insert obligatory hypothesis that way too many people understand “their place in the world” in exactly this way, or in this way except the cavalry doesn’t come, and being humans, are instinctively working to bring this about by hindering those who try to improve things, whereas people who think they live in e.g. behave rather differently.) Thus I do think these drills cause actual persistent damage beyond “upset”.

        • David Jay says:

          I think you’re defining ‘violence’ here as events where an individual can take action in order to avoid injury or death of oneself or someone in the immediate vicinity and that action is impeded by the intensity of the event.

          That is very much rare. Especially for school children.

          Additionally, the ability to condition a person to take action in those situations is difficult. It is one of the goals of basic training in the military for example. The actual cost of overcoming that conditioning is high and in my opinion, not worth the rarity of the event.

    • Thor says:

      The premise of vaccines relies on prior exposure to a much lesser evil being preventative against a greater evil common enough to be worth investing in preventing, all 3 of which are assumptions that don’t seem to be satisfied by these ‘drills’.
      1. The shooter drills seem to cause very real psychological harms, the magnitudes of those effects are shocking.
      2. Shooter drills are highly unlikely to help against school shootings, and if you’re discussing trauma in general then being already traumatised makes you more vulnerable, not less.
      3. School shootings are quite rare. If we’re discussing the much more common general category of “trauma” then I refer you back to point 2
      To use your vaccine analogy it’s like breaking someone’s leg to get them used to being ill so they’ll be better able to handle Covid. It makes no sense on many levels.

  3. Anonymous-backtick says:

    Given Uvalde revelations, things like “stand visibly in the library bookshelves” sound more like malice than stupidity.

    • Anonymous-backtick says:

      Like, not that I’d think for a second that teachers aren’t stupid enough to command that in the teacher version of “good faith”. But… the general glee of the egregore whenever there’s a school shooting has to trickle down to some of its followers.

  4. Natalie says:

    On the trauma point, don’t fire drills (tornado drills, earthquake drills etc.) pose exactly the same risk of trauma? I don’t see a reason to assume that dying in a fire is significantly less frightening to a child than dying from being shot. Maybe active shooter drills are more frightening if they’re introduced suddenly and in a way that’s tied to a recent incident in the news, but this suggests that if active shooter drills become normalized (just another thing you have to do every year, like a fire drill), they’ll cause less trauma.
    It’s sort of wild to me that the effectiveness of these drills seems to be so unknown. It seems like solving for efficacy would also help with the “inspiring a future shooter” problem–if the shooter knows that the school has a highly effective method for locking down, the drills could serve as deterrence rather than inspiration. (N.B. that I have no experience in this area and am just thinking out loud.)

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