In the year since the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., schools across the country have revisited their active shooter protocols, trying to come up with the best way to prepare for the worst. Seventeen people were killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, rampage, the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history. Shooting suspect and former student Nikolas Cruz remains in jail awaiting trial.
In the shooting’s aftermath, educators have debated the merits of different approaches to active shooter drills, which can be extremely stressful for students, teachers, and parents. April Sullivan, the parent of an eighth grader in Henrico County, Va., received a quick “I love you, Mom” text from her daughter last May. Sullivan found out later that her daughter had been in the middle of a surprise active shooter drill that she thought was the real deal.
“To find out later she sent that text because she was in fear for her life did not sit well with me,” Sullivan said. The eastern Virginia school district changed its policy and now notifies staff, students, and parents before a drill takes place. But even with notification, the drills can be distressing.
The National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers admonished schools in 2014 for their approach to active shooter simulations. The joint statement warned that drills not “conducted appropriately” could cause “physical and psychological harm to students, staff, and the overall learning environment.”
But what constitutes an appropriately conducted drill? Some schools simply talk through their protocol without physically enacting it, while some go as far to use real sounds of gunfire while students practice hiding or evacuation techniques.
And those techniques vary. For years, the ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate) protocol has been the industry standard in schools. Hospitals, businesses, and even churches follow it, too. Teachers and students receive training to hunker down in their locked classrooms, bolster doors with heavy furniture, and to communicate with outside rescuers using classroom phones or mobile devices. The ALICE Training Institute has revised the protocol in recent years, but the emphasis remains on barricading yourself and making the space as safe as possible.
But over the years, the practice of staying put and hoping for the best has come under scrutiny. The Parkland shooting forced the debate to the forefront of the national conversation on school safety. One survivor, Stoneman Douglas psychology teacher Ronit Roeven, told the Sun-Sentinel last April, “We were sitting ducks. We were vulnerable.”
A protocol called “Run, Hide, Fight” has surged in popularity since the Parkland shooting. The U.S. Department of Education recommended its use back in 2013, stating in published guidelines that “a ‘lockdown only’ response to an active shooter no longer meets government recommendations.” The protocol prioritizes evacuation over hiding and then fighting a shooter as a last resort.
“We need to be as prepared as we can,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, “but it doesn’t mean that we’ve got to terrify students to get them prepared.”
This year, Stoneman Douglas High School will offer counseling and support for current students on Thursday, the anniversary of the shooting, and it is encouraging them to participate in service projects like bringing a meal to the shooting’s first responders.