Published October 18, 2022
Schools across the country for years have been implementing drills to prepare their students for anything. From inclement weather to active shooters, school administrators have practiced every scenario with students to keep them as safe as possible.
But how effective are these drills, and how do they impact children’s preparedness, anxiety and perceptions of safety? Amanda Nickerson, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology, and director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, and her collaborator, Jaclyn Schildkraut, associate professor of criminal justice at SUNY Oswego, have authored a new book that comprehensively examines lockdown drills in K-12 schools.
Nickerson and Schildkraut are both school safety experts with backgrounds in school psychology and criminal justice, respectively. In their book, “Lockdown Drills Connecting Research and Best Practices for School Administrators, Teachers, and Parents,” the authors present common arguments for and against the inclusion of lockdown drills in emergency preparedness efforts. The authors balance their discussion of the perceptions and psychological impacts of lockdown drills with scholarly research and present how effectively individuals respond to a potential threat.
“I should say at the outset that about 95% of schools across the country are using these drills, so it’s not that it’s kind of a novel thing, but there is huge variability across states,” Nickerson said. “There are a lot of emotional and political arguments about what schools can do to keep students safe. But there’s really a lack of research on very specific preparedness strategies.”
The purpose of drills, Nickerson explained, is to prepare for any unsafe situation or any threat inside or around the school building. She emphasizes that drills, of which lockdowns are only one type, are just a part of the complex school safety puzzle.
“Conducting drills is something that we do to improve everyone’s skill and practice: knowing what to do and improving muscle memory, so that in the event of an actual emergency, people automatically know what to do because they’ve practiced. Providing training is key. Ensuring that schools are safe places for students and educators begins long before a crisis occurs and continues through the days, weeks and years of recovery following a crisis,” Nickerson said.
Schildkraut and Nickerson spent four years in the Syracuse City School District and a neighboring school district conducting research and implementing best practice lockdown drills.
“We studied what was going on before the drills and after the drills, and then, after doing the training and drills, we looked at how the students, faculty and staff were responding. So we’ve looked at everything, from them being able to actually follow the procedures of the drill to their perceptions of preparedness, to their feelings about whether or not they’ll be harmed in a school setting and anxiety. And we found a number of positive outcomes from these drills, when done correctly.”
The authors hope their book will bring much-needed standardization to how these drills are analyzed and conducted.
“Even within districts, schools may be using different protocols or conducting their drills differently. And there’s been a lot of concern and criticism about lockdown drills—one of the issues that we’ve found is that people are conflating this with other kinds of drills (i.e., active shooter drills),” Nickerson said.
“The standard lockdown drill is designed for if there’s any threat within a building. For example, if there’s a wild animal that gets in, if there’s someone that’s really escalating and you think they might be at risk for violence—not just a shooter coming into the school—so I think that is one important distinction,” she said.
“Also, the steps of the lockdown are very specific. It’s locking the door, turning out the lights, getting out of sight, staying quiet and not responding to a knock on the door or not responding to a fire alarm. I think it’s important that those standard steps are what our research has shown has led to these positive outcomes.”
Nickerson notes the design of a drill must be very specific, inclusive and address many issues and concerns before they even get to practicing or implementing protocol.
“You don’t just want to call a drill and have people not know what to do,” she said. “Our research has provided training to students and to staff, so that before a drill is ever called, they understand. We have a checklist that goes through where every single room is assessed. Schools can also practice planning for students and staff with disabilities or other special needs, and realize that some of them may need more comfort items and consider if this is going to make them very anxious, then they may need an adult to be paired with them. These are the kinds of steps that need to be considered ahead of time.”
During their research, Nickerson and Schildkraut assessed the steps taken before, during and after a drill, and then shared the results with each school. Through this process, Nickerson said, many issues have been identified and fixed.
“As the schools had more practice with the drills, they have and continue to improve, even four years later.”