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How Not To Conduct An Active Shooter Exercise

The recent active shooter drill conducted by the Winter Haven Florida Police Department will likely become a prime example of how not to conduct such exercises.

According to news reports:

“Teachers and students at a Florida middle school got the shock of their lives as an unannounced ‘lockdown active shooter drill’ sparked panic as police burst into classrooms with weapons drawn, drawing sharp criticism from the community. Students at Jewett Middle Academy in Winter Haven, Florida, spoke of the terror they experienced as police officers carried out their ‘active shooter drill’ inside classrooms – without informing teachers ahead of time about the exercise.”

With all the right intentions of being prepared for dealing with an armed gunman inside a school and mounting an effective tactical response, the police department failed to take into consideration some important procedural and emotional factors.

  • An unannounced drill is not a bad idea. But at the time a school makes the announcement that they are in “lockdown,” students and staff must be informed that it is a drill.There should never be any doubt whether a lockdown announcement is a drill or is a genuine emergency.Lockdowns are not equivalent to fire drills, despite the Polk County Schools statement to that affect.Nor is it necessary to make them “as realistic as possible,” as the Winter Haven Police Chief stated.In the event of a fire, there is plenty of early warning and automatic suppression systems to reduce risk.This allows for orderly, safe exit and that is what is “drilled” into students.Would the school consider throwing a few smoke bombs during their next fire drill “to see how the students reacted?”I doubt it.You want drills to produce order, not panic.

  • As far as students knew they were facing loaded weapons.If that was in fact the case and the weapons were loaded, then that boarders on the criminal in this writer’s mind.Having a police background, I know that all practical exercises where weapons will be pointed at people are conducted using unloaded and typically non-functioning weapons AND which are clearly identified as such by special paint or other markings.

  • Schools are supposed to be safe places for our kids, not places where they are put on edge.There is disruption and anxiety created by any unannounced drill.Adding components of armed police entering rooms with students unaware that there is not really any danger does not support the perception and confidence of a safe school, nor does it encourage trust from parents.

  • In a lockdown, students and teachers are supposed to do several things.These may include securing their classroom, accounting for their students, locking their doors, drawing the window blinds, huddling in a specified area or other specific actions that the school staff, its security consultants and law enforcement has previously agreed upon as part of the emergency plan.That’s it.The next steps in the event of a true emergency are going to be determined by police direction or – in the event of an immediate life and death danger – the teacher.There is no value in an unannounced drill that does more than that.Police officers bursting into rooms for an exercise with weapons drawn will do nothing to actually help keep the kids safe, it will only help the police officers practice tactics.

There is no doubt that police need to practice exercises in the buildings they protect. They even need to practice with people taking on various roles as school staff, students, hostages, victims, etc. However this can be done with volunteers and full disclosure about the extent of the exercise. There is also no doubt that schools need to practice lockdown drills and create ways of measuring their effectiveness. These drills should be both announced and unannounced.

However, in this case the exercise simply went too far. Students, parents and teachers at Jewett Middle Academy have a right to be upset. This drill, while well intentioned, did not improve the schools responsiveness to a potential active shooter. It just scared the kids and ruined the teachers’ lesson plans for the day.

Again, from news reports:

“Following the outpouring of criticism from teachers and parents, Winter Haven police said they had ‘evaluated procedures’ for such drills and decided to change their tactics. ‘Further lock-down drills that occur at schools within the city limits of Winter Haven will be performed by uniformed officers without weapons,’ the department said in a press release.”

So, I guess there were a number of lessons learned that day...just not by the students.

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