A Guide to Effective Lockdown Drills for K-12 Schools

June 10, 2024

During a 2022 committee meeting, Washington state Rep. Amy Walen raised an essential point about lockdown drills.

Rep. Amy Walen's point about lockdown drills is crucial. She aptly said, “You can prepare your kids for a house fire by telling them where to meet and how to climb out of their windows … but you don’t have to burn the house down to show them how to escape a house fire safely.” This underscores the significance of effective drills and the potential harm of ineffective ones.

This is especially relevant to what we’ve learned about lockdown drills since starting PASS. We’ve learned that not all drills are created equal, and some procedures can do more harm than good. The potential consequences of ineffective procedures underscore the growing need for more awareness of more effective approaches.

Lockdown drills have become common in the U.S., with over 40 states making them mandatory. However, it's important to note that there is currently no federal guidance on conducting these drills. This lack of standardization underscores the need for this blog post, which will delve into the most effective ways to conduct lockdown drills and common mistakes to avoid.

Lockdown, lockout, and shelter-in-place: What’s the difference?

Lockdown, lockout, and shelter-in-place are used in emergency preparedness to describe different safety procedures. Each has specific actions and purposes, and while they all aim to ensure individual safety, they differ in their implementation and the situations they address. Understanding these differences is crucial for effective emergency response planning.

Lockdown — A lockdown focuses on immediate threats or dangers within or near a facility, such as an active shooter, intruder, or any situation where securing individuals within a specific area is necessary.

Lockout -- Lockouts address external threats to the facility, such as a dangerous person or activity in the surrounding community. The goal is to prevent potential dangers from entering the premises.

Shelter-in-Place—Shelter-in-place is a broader term for situations where individuals need protection within a secure location due to external hazards, such as severe weather, chemical spills, or other environmental threats.

Mistakes to Avoid in Lockdown Drills

Unannounced Drills -- Unannounced lockdown drills might seem like a way to test the actual readiness of students and staff. However, the unintended consequences can be severe. These drills can lead to panic, confusion, and increased stress levels for students and parents, spreading unnecessary rumors and panic throughout the community.

The lack of preparation and the sudden nature of these drills hinder schools' ability to achieve their primary goal—ensuring the safety and well-being of everyone on campus. Illinois and Virginia are just a couple of states requiring school districts to notify parents before lockdown drills.

Live-Action Scenarios -- Lockdown drills are intended to prepare students for potential emergencies. Live-action drills that simulate violence or danger can negatively affect students, leaving them distressed and traumatized. Dr. David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, agrees with Amy Walen’s comparison of lockdown drills to fire drills, stating there is no pretend fire when conducting fire drills.

He added that high-intensity training that simulates an actual attack should not be conducted in schools because it can cause psychological harm to students and even impact educators’ decision-making.

Props, Sounds, and Visuals—Jeremy Gulley, the superintendent of Jay School Corporation in Portland, Indiana, and a PASS Board of Directors and Advisory Council member, shared that their lockdown drills aim to minimize student stress. Therefore, they avoid using pyrotechnics or blanks in the building and do not provide graphic first-aid training to students.

Additionally, a New Jersey law prohibits the use of fake blood, real or prop firearms, or any simulations of explosions, gunshots, or other sounds and visuals in drills because they can cause panic and lead to traumatic responses in students and employees.

Tips for Creating an Effective Lockdown Drill

“Making any drill an educational experience for the staff, students, and community is important. Students should be empowered to know what to do,” says PASS Advisory Council chair Guy Grace.

Creating a lockdown drill procedure requires careful and thoughtful planning. It is crucial to consider the possible effects of drills on the mental well-being of students and teachers. The following are essential steps to develop an efficient lockdown drill, as found in the PASS Safety and Security Guidelines.

Notify Parents in Advance—Transparency is critical. Parents should be informed well in advance about upcoming drills, allowing them to discuss the process with their children and address any concerns.

Test Systems When Schools Are Closed -- It is essential to regularly test schools’ communication systems, alarms, and security measures during breaks or when schools are closed. This helps to ensure these systems’ proper functionality and identify any issues that need addressing. Specifically, it is essential to check that the door lock and sensor monitoring systems are fully functional and that the emergency messaging systems are correctly set up.

Keep Drills Simple and Age Appropriate -- Drill procedures should be simple and easy to follow. If they are too complex, they can lead to confusion, defeating the purpose of preparedness. A well-understood plan that is easy to follow will lead to a more effective response.

Remember that different age groups have varying levels of understanding and emotional resilience. Therefore, it is essential to tailor the drills to be age-appropriate, balancing the need for preparedness with sensitivity to the student’s developmental stage. Safe and Sound Schools offers guidance on understanding students’ development levels, which can help craft an age-appropriate drill procedure.

Offer Multiple Strategies/Scenarios

It is important to note that students and staff may only sometimes be in their classrooms or behind closed doors during their busy school days. Remember, during an active threat situation, the natural human reaction is to be startled, feel fear and anxiety, and even experience initial disbelief and denial.

You can expect to hear noise from alarms, gunfire, and explosions, as well as people shouting and screaming. Knowing your options gives you the means to regain your composure, recall at least some of what you have learned, and commit to action.

There are four consistent basic options that you can utilize: shelter, evade, defend, and care. During an active threat situation, individuals rarely have all the information they need to make a fully informed decision about the best option. While they should follow the plan and any instructions given during an incident, they often must rely on their judgment to decide which option will best protect lives.

Therefore, it is necessary to teach them additional strategies beyond just sheltering in a classroom. For instance, they should be taught what to do when an active threat arises in other areas of the school, such as bathrooms, cafeterias, or hallways. In addition, during a lockdown drill at an elementary school, staff and students should be given scenarios for recess so they can learn how to leave school grounds safely.

Evacuation strategies should be drilled as one of the option-based strategies based on the information the students and staff have. Ensuring that students and staff know how to evacuate in an active threat situation, where the reunification points are, and what to do once reaching a unification point empowers students in an active threat situation.

Make It an Educational Experience

Transform drills into educational opportunities by discussing the importance of preparedness, the rationale behind each action (like shutting off lights, staying quiet and out of view, and responding to law enforcement), and everyone’s responsibility to maintain a secure environment.

With proper planning, school districts and educators can empower their communities to respond confidently in emergencies, fostering a safer and more secure learning environment for all. Download and review our School Safety and Security Guidelines to learn more about the best practices and steps for implementing and conducting effective lockdown drills.

The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) bringing together expertise from the education, public safety, and industry communities to develop and support a coordinated approach to making effective and appropriate decisions concerning safety and security investments. Download the complete PASS Guidelines or check out our PASS Safety and Security Checklist for quick start tips. These resources and whitepapers on various topics are free, including barricade devices, lockdown drills, and more.

Contributors: PASS Policies and Procedures Tech Committee members