Active Shooter Drills Training Without Traumatizing


Unannounced active shooter drills might seem a perfect way to train staff for the unthinkable.  What better way could there be to accurately test and gauge a staff’s response to an armed intruder than to have personnel respond believing it to be an actual event?After all, some schools conduct unannounced fire or severe weather drills, and those exercises usually occur with few, if any, negative consequences.   It might stand to reason active shooter drills should be included among the list of unannounced drills.   However, is it a wise decision and what are the risks?

You Need to Know


Unannounced active shooter drills are dangerous and create an unnecessary risk to staff, students, bystanders, and the role players.   Additionally, there is a risk it might alter, in an adverse way, a staff member’s response should an actual armed assailant confront him or her.  Finally, the risk significantly increases the exposure to liability of all the agencies involved.   The limited value that may exist in an unannounced active shooter drill does not offset the risks created by the circumstances themselves. 


Risks of Unannounced Active Shooter Drill


It is not possible to set up a completely controlled environment in which to conduct the drill.   Some variables are simply outside the control of those in charge even if conducted on a non-student day.Implementing an unannounced active shooter drill would require one to acknowledge and accept the following risks.



  • Many states allow citizens to carry concealed weapons.In some, the right extends to inside the boundaries of educational facilities.  At any given time, an employee or well-meaning citizen might see and hear an individual appearing to be an active shooter on campus and make the decision to intervene with deadly force.   During the 1998 school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi the assistant principal ran to his vehicle on the parking lot to retrieve a .45 caliber handgun in order to confront the assailant.


  • It is now standard training to instruct teachers and others to take whatever action is necessary to survive if an active shooter gains access to the classroom. This includes taking action to neutralize the perpetrator through any means available up to and including lethal force.  It is easy to construct a scenario where a teacher, believing imminent life threatening force is about to be used,initiates actions injuring the person playing the role of the active shooter.This type of drill might also result with a teacher injury.


  • Believing the assailant is only a role player, there is also the risk that staff, after a previously unannounced drill, might hesitate in taking action against an actual assailant gaining access to the classroom.  The hesitation might be momentary but long enough to negate the only opportunity for neutralizing the threatening individual.


  • Another risk might be from staff with a medical condition, perhaps not previously diagnosed. Subjecting staff to extreme levels of stress, including believing they are about to die, could trigger a heart attack or other unintended physiological responses.   


  • There are also mental health issues related to the psychological trauma that might result from an unannounced active shooter drill. A staff member may have had a traumatic event in his past involving an act of violence.  It is possible the experience of believing they are about to die might generate lasting adverse effects.  


Training for Worst Case Scenario


 Law enforcement officers routinely engage in firearms training, sometimes called, “shoot – don’t shoot” exercises. This type of exercise is designed to help officers make instantaneous decisions in the use of lethal force, and they participate in rigorous training in preparation for doing so.   But even officers are aware the exercise is simulated.


It is challenging for school leaders to provide an environment where staff can be safely trained in making potential life and death decisions and have their responses and actions evaluated.  But, there are options.


 Facilitating staff learning through the use of a tabletop exercise is a non-threatening way of not only teaching the emergency response plan, but it also allows staff to problem solve and make decisions related to an emergency event.  Presenting staff with a scenario involving an armed individual or active shooter will actually allow staff to problem solve collectively through the sharing of considerations, options and actions.  The ensuing discussion that accompanies this type of training is valuable to administrators and staff, especially for personnel new to the field of education


Announced active shooter drills are a legitimate way of providing staff, and within certain parameters students, a simulated exercise minus the element of total surprise.  There will still be an elevated level of stress just by the nature of the drill.  There will still be the recognition that actions or the lack of action can result in tragic consequences in a real event.   And functions such as securing classrooms, sheltering or evacuating students, or even barricading can still be practiced and evaluated for effectiveness. 


 Another legitimate way to train staff is to use faculty meeting or professional learning time to discuss a variety of ways staff could respond during an emergency that might involve a lethal assailant.  These discussions are most productive when law enforcement participates and should be conducted in advance of any drill activity or other exercise.




   Liability and the potential for litigation is always a possibility when someone is hurt or injured at school or a related function.We are a litigious society especially when it involves death, physical injury or psychological trauma.   In preparing training events and drills where safety is the primary focus, administrators should always evaluate the risks associated with the expected benefits.  Guidance and insight can be gained by listening to the experts.


In December 2014 the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers jointly prepared and released a report on training school staff on active shooter events.  In the report, Best Practice Considerations for School in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills, these two highly reputable organizations stated, “Armed Assailant Drills should NEVER be unannounced”. 


Before schools consider unannounced active shooter drills, administrators and others should consider the risks, talk to experts in the field of school safety, and read the literature available on the topic. For those that truly understand the educational climate and how to work with teachers and students, the conclusion will be that this type of drill has risks that just simply cannot be overcome.


Judy M. Brunner and Dennis K. Lewis are Safe School Consultants and Trainers at Edu-Safe LLC.


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