Is it time to rethink school shooting drills? Suburban districts say yes.
The nation's two largest teachers unions want schools to revise or eliminate active shooter drills, asserting Tuesday that they can harm students' mental health and that there are better ways to prepare for the possibility of a school shooting.
The American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association joined with the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund in calling for an end to unannounced drills or drills that simulate gun violence.
The recommendation generally drew support from several suburban school districts contacted Tuesday by the Daily Herald. Spokesmen noted the school districts already avoid those types of drills but that less dramatic lockdown drills are required by state law.
Drills at Round Lake Area Unit School District 116, for instance, are announced to teachers and students over school intercom systems before they happen and mostly consist of teachers locking classroom doors, turning off the lights and hiding with students away from the entrances, spokeswoman Heather Bennett said. The district does not conduct drills where people pretend to be shooters, she said.
Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 officials agree 100% with the recommendations, Executive Director of Community Relations Terri McHugh said. District officials have a previously scheduled meeting with local police on Wednesday, and the possibility of accepting or adapting to the new recommendations is likely to be discussed, she said.
District 54 students participate in lockdown drills, but not in drills that simulate a shooter, McHugh said. Parents are notified at the beginning of the school year that such drills will be held and are also informed on the days they occur before students return home.
The report released Tuesday recommends schools concentrate on training teachers to respond to an active shooter incident rather than drilling students. It also issued guidelines for schools that decide to use drills. Those include never simulating an actual shooting; giving parents, educators and students advance notice of any drill; working with mental health officials to create age-appropriate and trauma-informed drills; and tracking the effects of drills.
"Traumatizing students as we work to keep students safe from gun violence is not the answer. That is why if schools are going to do drills, they need to take steps to ensure the drills do more good than harm," said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association.
About 95% of schools drilled students on lockdown procedures in the 2015-16 school year, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Illinois law requires at least one lockdown drill per school year on a day when students are present, McHugh said.
Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 does organize active shooter drills for staff members and local police. But students are deliberately excluded with the drills on institute days, Director of Community Relations Tom Petersen said.
Students in District 211 take part in simpler lockdown drills, he said. Though one per year is required, the district has been holding two per year at each school.
Naperville Unit District 203 conducts announced drills as required by state law within the first 90 days of each school year, spokeswoman Sinikka Mondini said. The district sends a follow-up message to parents each time a drill is conducted and never uses weapons, look-alike weapons or gunfire sounds during the drills.
Schools focus on "preparing a mindset of awareness in our students and faculty," Mondini said, using the ALICE method of training, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. All staffers, including substitutes, have been trained, as have students in an age-appropriate manner at the elementary, junior high and high school levels, Mondini said.
A study of mass shooters from 1966 through 2019 found that nearly all were students and they exhibited warning signs before the incident. The national report recommends schools create threat assessment programs and teams to identify and address potential violent behavior and to providing students with appropriate treatment.
Cory Fink, District 116's coordinator of crisis and safety, said he will complete the district's first threat assessment manual by the end of the month. "It would be up to the team to intervene and come up with the best safety plan for the student at that time," Fink said. "The best practice is getting everyone on the same page and communicating."
• Daily Herald staff writers Eric Peterson, Doug T. Graham and Marie Wilson contributed to this report.