Lockdown Drills: How to make school Scarier But Not Safer

Does frequent rehearsal of school lockdown procedures really make any sense?

A friend recently drew my attention to this article (or lightly-edited press release) on lockdown drill legislation which appeared in Contingency Planning & Management. The State of New Jersey has passed legislation to require monthly lock-down drills for public and private schools in New Jersey. The state also requires schools to have two fire drills per month.

In a lockdown drill children and staff practice for the scenario of a gunman on the loose in the school. Children have to stay quiet and out of sight of windows and doors, while teachers lock doors and draw blinds.

Apart form scaring children (see this blog entry) it’s difficult to see what the legislators of these monthly drills hope to achieve.

If you read this list of school-related attacks one thing should be evident: it’s hard to find cases where a lockdown would have made any difference. In the worst cases the attacker enters a room full of the people he wishes to attack and opens fire. More frequently isolated victims known to the assailant are attacked. The idea that killer(s) will wander around the corridors looking for random victims after a convenient announcement has been made over the public address system is mainly a TV fiction.

Even if lockdowns were effective, there’s a second problem here. Remember the saying, “familiarity breeds contempt“. When I was at school, we used to have one fire drill a year. (It was a residential school, and the fire drill was always at night). It didn’t take us long to (a) learn the procedure, and (b) start assuming that all fire alarms were fire drills. New students might hurry; experienced students took their time and made sure they had warm clothes.

That was with one fire drill each year.

If you had twice-monthly fire drills and monthly lockdown drills would you take a fire alarm or a lockdown call very seriously? These aren’t emergency responders trying to knock seconds off their reaction times. These are just children. A few seconds is unlikely to matter. Practice, yes. If the practice goes badly, repeat the practice until everybody gets things right. But twice a month? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I bet the New Jersey Senate doesn’t practice fire drills twice a month. Maybe it doesn’t make the news, but search for “New Jersey Senators Evacuated” and you will get zero hits.

And, of course, if killing random children is really a killer’s aim, fire drills actually make things much more convenient. Large numbers of students evacuating to standard places outside a building are an easy target. Sadly it doesn’t take a genius to figure this out. And the state of New Jersey gives potential killers two opportunities each month to observe an evacuation and plan accordingly.

School shootings are tragedies, but if we think that monthly lockdown drills will do anything to eliminate this risk we are fooling ourselves.

[If anybody has any evidence that school lockdowns are effective, please comment. I've found a few stories of lockdowns being used to keep students out of the way while premises are searched for intruders, but nothing suggesting they have ever saved lives. ]
27 January 2010

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