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Active-shooter drills look pretty weird over Zoom

Classes are still online and for some students, so are safety drills

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Active shooter drill
Staff photo by Derek Davis/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

At the beginning of her psychology class, Vivian’s teacher announced they’d be having a code red drill. Adamantly, she gave the instructions, then gave them again. The teacher, and the small group of students who were present in the classroom, would turn off the lights and hide in the corner furthest from the door. The 30 students on the Zoom call, Vivian included, would turn off their cameras and mute their microphones. Were there an actual shooting, though, they’d exit the call. 

Fifteen minutes later, an alarm came over the classroom’s intercom, blaring through Vivian’s computer speaker. She muted herself; her face disappeared from the call. For around eight minutes, she watched the dark classroom, and listened to the teacher and students as they quietly conversed. They were scared. 

As of 2017, 95 percent of American schools held active-shooter drills. And across the country, students like Vivian have continued to observe and participate in the exercises — over video chat, from their homes. 

COVID-19 has sent schools around the world scrambling. Eight months after the first wave of closures, many districts are still offering virtual instruction in some form, through either fully online or hybrid models (like Vivian’s school) with some students in the classroom and others calling in. Students and teachers have improvised to replicate aspects of traditional school over video chat: prom, scavenger hunts, art shows, musicals, even sports. But the cocktail of safety drills that schools usually offer (including simulations of active-shooter scenarios and other events like fires, tornadoes, and earthquakes) could pose a particular challenge when it comes to engaging remote students. 

California School Conducts Shooting And Evacuation Drill
An Alameda Police officer evacuates students during a school shooting and mass evacuation drill at Lincoln Middle School in Alameda, California. 
Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Why put virtual students through drills at all? At least 40 states require schools to hold them, even if they’re using blended instruction. In some cases, there are other stakes as well. “They’re worried about the potential legal liability,” Patrick Blanchfield, an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research who write about gun violence in American culture, told The Verge. “There’s a potential class-action lawsuit saying they didn’t do the training.”

In some cases, Blanchfield says, there’s a profit incentive as well. Safety training is a $2.7 billion industry, and some schools contract with private training companies and security-consulting firms. Schools also receive tens of millions of dollars each year in state and federal grants to fund active-shooter drills and other “safety” measures. 

On the other hand, it’s clear why these policies are in place. There were 417 mass shootings in the US and over 15,000 gun deaths in 2019; there were 25 school shootings with injuries or deaths. Even if students aren’t in school now, most will return in the future. It could be prudent to remind them of safety procedures and help parents feel more comfortable sending them back.   

She couldn’t help but think about what she might be hearing if a shooter were actually there

But long before remote schooling swept the US, there was controversy over whether active-shooter trainings make anyone safer. There’s no national standardized procedure for schools to follow, and there’s little research on their efficacy. America’s two largest teachers’ unions called on schools to end unannounced drills and drills that simulate violence earlier this year, arguing that the exercises traumatize students. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also warned of their “potential psychological risks.” Even Donald Trump doesn’t like them. And some research has shown that the drills increase stress and depression in school communities.

That can still be the case over Zoom. Vivian, whose parents requested that her surname be withheld since she’s a minor, said the experience was “really nerve-wracking.” The alarm was loud and startling. And as she listened to her teacher and the students conversing in the dark room, she says she couldn’t help but think about what she might be hearing if a shooter were actually there.

She also remembers feeling “melancholic.”

Hawaiian Kindergardeners Practice Lockdown Drills
Kindergarten students lie on the floor during a classroom lockdown drill in Oahu, Hawaii. 
Photo by Phil Mislinski / Getty Images

Some schools have replaced disaster simulations with a more informational format in an attempt to accommodate remote students. Kailey Hill, principal of Manchester Elementary in Spring Lake, North Carolina, has converted her state-mandated monthly fire drills to information sessions about at-home fire safety. Over a video call, she methodically explains the school’s fire drill procedure, shares general fire safety resources with both students and parents, and helps them make evacuation plans for their own homes. The priority when it comes to active-shooter drills, Hill says, should be explaining the procedures to students with context they can understand. 

“For some of our students, dependent on the age, they might not have a parent right there with them,” Hill said. “We talk to them so we can assuage their fears, and kind of help the narrative, so that kids don’t start crying or get really scared or anything like that.”

But some students worry about the philosophical framing of such conversations — that they place an onus on students and distract from the broader issues of gun access and gun control. Diana Marcela Morales, a senior at North Carolina State University, had that frustration with an exercise that took place in her summer criminology class — where all the students were virtual. Rather than simulating a code red scenario, a police officer walked the class through an incident verbally, listing locations that students should go if there were a shooter on campus: the places they should hide, the exits they should take, the directions they should run.  

“It was perpetuating this idea that it was up to students to keep themselves safe during an active shooter drill, not the school’s to protect us,” Morales said. “It put too much responsibility on students to just survive and pray, pretty much.”

“It really felt like some Buzzfeed video ... that’s like ‘Top 10 Places To Hide At Your University During An Active Shooter So You Don’t Die Even Though You Aren’t On Campus,’” she added.

And Morales doesn’t feel she learned much useful information, either. She didn’t know where all the officer’s recommended hiding spots were, and the escape routes, couched in cardinal directions like “run west,” meant little to her. “I feel like a class on how to seek resources during the pandemic would’ve been a lot more helpful than an active shooter drill through a Zoom meeting.”

“It put too much responsibility on students to just survive and pray.”

Conducting shooter drills on the same routine schedule as exercises for fire, earthquake, and other natural disasters works to normalize the active shooter in the same vein — as an inevitable force of nature, says Blanchfield, the gun-violence researcher. “Even when people are no longer in schools, we’re still training them to expect school shootings.” 

Other students had less principled opposition, describing their experiences as “boring,” “awkward,” and “weird.”

“I was just bored,” said Cassandra, a high school senior in New York who requested a pseudonym so she wouldn’t get in trouble. Her principal called a surprise lockdown drill during her fifth-period biology class while the teacher was sharing her screen. Unable to see the classroom, Cassandra had no idea what was happening during the exercise. “I went to cook some microwaveable macaroni,” she said.

Frank (also a pseudonym, for the same reason), a junior in Pinellas County, Florida, got similarly little out of a recent active shooter drill. He and nine other students watched monotonously over Zoom as his teacher and in-person classmates turned off the lights and hid under their desks — Zoom-watchers had been given no instruction. “Kind of awkward,” he said. “About 15 minutes of nothing.” Why did he stay on the call? “Well, it was during class time.”