Should active shooter drills feel more realistic?

By Caroline Bottger

New recommendations from a draft report by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission say that Florida public schools should do fewer, more realistic shooter drills. In the wake of the February 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, FL, schools were required to do monthly emergency drills. In response to parental concerns over students being traumatized by the frequency and nature of the drills, the commission recommended a downgrade to six drills per year and that each should be “unique,” so that staff and students would have to actively respond. 

Emphasizing realism in shooter drills has become a flashpoint in the last year. Some students say they now feel scared at school, but security professionals and administration staff say that “unique” drills are necessary to keep students and staff from becoming too complacent. A December 2018 report by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that in the case of the Parkland massacre, the school district and the sheriff’s office alike were unprepared: “School district policies were insufficient and employees were uncertain who could order that the campus be locked down.” Realism aside, the frequency of drills is by no means decided. According to Peter Rugg at Vox, without any database or national standards for shooter drills in the first place, it’s impossible to say how often school districts are doing them and what the drills entail.

A lack of standards means that students and teachers with special needs are placed in unnecessary danger. A recent report from the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities found that most schools in the state are “unprepared when it comes to helping students with special needs to fully participate in emergency plans.” Students in other districts have reported being dragged out of their wheelchairs or placed in bathroom stalls during emergency drills over the years. Currently, students with disabilities receive an Independent Emergency and Lockdown Plan (IELP), which feeds into their Individualized Education Plan (IEP). These individual plans “represent a missed opportunity for universal design and inclusion,” wrote Valerie Novack back in May.

Elsewhere, some schools are looking to technology to prevent violent incidents before they occur. WIRED identified eight school districts that are deploying facial recognition technology to track students they deem to be a threat, based on ‘watchlists’ put together by school officials and law enforcement. Though the schools report success stories, parents in these districts worry that their children are being tracked wholesale. Security professionals assure them that only “persons of interest” will be tracked. But some security professionals also believe in the holistic approach: “You have surveillance cameras at Disney World, why should schools be different?” said Mike Matranga, executive director of security at Texas City Independent School District, a district that uses facial recognition.

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