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Do Current Active Shooter Drills Work? Abbott’s Plan Offers One Way To Change Them

In several school shootings across the country, student shooters pulled fire alarms to create panic and send victims from the classrooms into their gunfire

Students crowd the hallway after the last bell rings at Liberty High School in Frisco in February 2017.
LARA SOLT / KERA NEWS SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR

Across Texas and the country, many campuses conduct active shooter drills. Because school shootings are often perpetrated by students who attend those schools, some raise a concern: Do these drills give potential shooters too much inside information? 

Schools conduct all kinds of safety drills to prepare for everything from fires to tornadoes. Beginning in the 1950s, triggered by the threat of a nuclear explosion, Bert the cartoon turtle taught kids to “duck and cover.” Similarly, active shooter drills are designed to enhance safety, but what if they do the opposite? Gov. Greg Abbott implied that last month when he introduced his school and firearm safety plan less than two weeks after a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

“As a teacher explained to me, she said that when the fire alarms went off in Santa Fe, it compelled teachers and students to react the way they were trained,” Abbott said. “And that is to exit the classroom, go into the hallway and try to exit the school. Well, as soon as they went into the hallway, they encountered gunfire from the shooter.”

In several school shootings across the country, student shooters pulled fire alarms to create panic and send victims from the classrooms into their gunfire. In other words, they took advantage of their fire drill knowledge.

‘Nature of the beast’

Patrick Patterson, a criminal justice professor at Eastfield College in Mesquite, says this certainly doesn’t mean schools shouldn’t have fire drills. And schools should also continue conducting active shooter drills, he says.

“But it’s really the nature of the beast,” Patterson said. “And we’re hoping that a lot of times these active shooters don’t think that far ahead in advance to say, ‘Well, we’re going to do it this way because we know exactly where they’re going to go.’”

Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, says school shooters often don’t think that far ahead.

“My sense is that an individual who wants to [wreak] harm and havoc on a school or wants to [wreak] harm and havoc on a shopping mall or a movie theater, that individual has a certain train of thought and wants to do something,” Piquero said. “And they’re going to do it regardless of the knowledge drills or [not].

He says there is a way to find out what advantage, if any, shooters get from active shooter drills: Ask them.

“There’s no research that documents a level of detail asking shooters whether they’ve sought out particular targets because they have had certain kinds of drills or not,” Piquero said.

Gov. Greg Abbott introduced his school safety plan at Dallas Independent School District headquarters on May 18, 2018.
 
Different alarm, different course of action

With little or no research, elected officials, educators and law enforcement are trying out the best new, if untested, safety ideas. Governor Abbott’s plan offered the option of an active shooter alarm — distinct from other school alarms.

“There needs to be a way to distinguish from a fire alarm, which compels one strategy which is to exit schools, and then a different type of alarm system for an active shooter situation, in which most schools train that you find ways to bunker down into your classroom,” Abbott said while introducing his safety plan in Dallas.

Dallas School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa likes that idea.

It has a different tone, a different duration, alerts everybody, ‘OK, this is where we’re going now,’ Hinojosa said. “Of course, all our people need to get trained on that, which takes a little bit time, but that’s very doable, that shouldn’t be too expensive for us to pull off.”

Still, this is just one of many ideas. Even if schools install a shooter alarm, that won’t stop a future school shooter from pulling a fire alarm anyway. Abbott says his plan is only a starting point — and a spark to launch more conversations to improve school safety across the state.

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