When Mohammad Jehad Ahmad began teaching almost six years ago, he wasn’t familiar with lockdown drills.
“I was under the impression that a lockdown drill just meant to lock the door,” the Bronx high school math teacher said. “So in my first year doing it, I would lock the door and keep teaching.”
It wasn’t until a school administrator noticed what Ahmad was doing that he received any instruction about how to conduct a lockdown drill.
As school shootings have gone up in the last decade, New York state has mandated lockdown drills for all public schools since 2016. New York City schools now lead four lockdown drills every academic year (along with 12 fire drills). But Chalkbeat spoke with teachers from across the city in elementary, middle, and high schools, who said they received little to no training before conducting lockdown drills.
Although more than 40 states mandate similar drills, sometimes called “active shooter drills,” there isn’t a nationwide protocol.
In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two teachers were killed, attention has turned again to lockdown drills and the role teachers should play in protecting students from potential shooters.
In a recent speech, Vice President Kamala Harris said that, “Teachers should not have to practice barricading a classroom. Teachers should not have to know how to treat a gunshot wound.” But in states like Utah, local governments have encouraged teachers to arm themselves and practice active shooter scenarios.
In New York City, teachers are not encouraged to carry weapons, but their lack of training on lockdown drills means that practices vary from school to school and even from classroom to classroom.
Ahmad has now mastered the procedure. He has to not only stop class instruction, but also check for any students wandering the hallway, cover the door window, turn off the lights, and instruct students to huddle quietly in a corner, where a potential intruder wouldn’t be able to see them. He relied on veteran teachers and trial and error to learn.
Ahmad said he never received any formal training that explained every step of the process or prepared him for potential technical issues or students’ emotional responses. He vaguely remembers a staff meeting where someone mentioned that they should take the drills seriously, but that was it.
“As a newer teacher, no one told me what to do. And the only way that I was told was as a correction, because someone noticed I was doing it wrong,” he said.
A spokesperson from the city’s education department said that “teachers participate in a review of all emergency drill procedures, which includes lockdown procedures, at the start of every school year.”
The “building response team” leader, often an assistant principal or dean, is supposed to conduct the overview during staff meetings when teachers return from summer break. Guidance regarding emergency procedures is also posted throughout all schools and classrooms, according to the city’s education department.
Teachers get simple, four-step instructions on how to conduct drills: check hallway, lock door, turn off lights, and move out of sight. In reality, lockdown drills are anything but simple.
The lack of training leads to inconsistencies among classrooms and schools. There isn’t guidance on whether drills should be announced beforehand or how long they should last. Some teachers said drills in their schools last five minutes, while others said they can last as long as half an hour.
Teachers are not trained on how to explain drills to students, support students with mental health needs, guide students with disabilities who struggle to remain quiet and still, or navigate classrooms that have physical limitations.
For example, some classrooms have windowed walls. Teachers aren’t able to cover the whole wall during a lockdown, and an intruder would easily be able to see who’s inside the classroom from the hallway. In addition, some teachers rotate classrooms and don’t have keys to every room in which they teach. That means they’re unable to lock the door.
The mechanics of a lockdown drill
Ahmad’s school always lets him know in advance that a lockdown drill will take place in the coming week, which allows him to plan lessons accordingly. But not all schools are like Ahmad’s.
Selena Carrión, an educator with over 10 years of experience teaching in Manhattan and the Bronx who recently left the public school system, said that sometimes she didn’t know a drill was going to happen. But even when she did, she wasn’t supposed to let her students know.
“We’re not supposed to alert the students. You have to act naturally and go about business as usual,” Carrión said.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has created a guideline with best practices for schools conducting lockdown drills. They state that the drills schedule should be discussed at the beginning of each year and that staff should be reminded a week in advance.
Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at Duke University School of Medicine, said that lockdown drills should be announced to staff or students and their families.
“They need to be announced in multiple ways, however the school communicates with parents, students, faculty, and school personnel,” Gurwitch said. “Everybody needs to know it is going to happen. It always needs to be preceded with ‘This is a drill.’ It can create quite a bit of anxiety, worry, and concern, if it is a spontaneous thing.”
Gurwitch said that studies have shown an increase in anxiety, depression, and stress, following lockdown drills. At the same time, she said when all people involved know what’s expected to happen and what their roles are supposed to be, the likelihood of such mental health responses can be reduced.
“If you really are sincere about reducing a mental health toll from these drills, then you need to make sure that every single person in the school, from the substitute teachers to the cafeteria workers, knows that it is a drill and has been trained on what it’s going to look like,” she said.
The city’s department of education, however, said that only those working with the building response team need to know when lockdown drills will take place and that drills are more effective when unannounced.
Ahmad said when his students didn’t know about the drill beforehand, they would get stressed out. Over time, he learned that letting students know at the beginning of the period was the best way to prepare them for the drill.
In Brooklyn, elementary school teacher Liat Olenick said that her students once “freaked out” when their classroom teacher was late picking them up from her room where she taught science. “They had to do a lockdown drill with me instead of with their regular teacher, and I hadn’t talked to them about it,” Olenick said.
Talking to students about lockdown drills
Most teachers Chalkbeat spoke to said that they tell students lockdown drills are about practicing as if there was a dangerous person in the school building.
In her Brooklyn elementary school, Olenick finds it helpful to compare lockdown drills to fire drills. “I say, ‘We practice what to do in case there’s a fire. We’re doing this to be safe in case somebody is at the school who isn’t safe’,” Olenick said. “I always emphasize the idea of practice very heavily.”
Although most teachers never mention the words “shooting” or “shooter,” many students know that lockdown drills are meant to protect them from a potential mass shooting as they’ve seen on the news.
Olenick said that starting in second or third grade some students become aware of school shootings. “That becomes challenging because you’ll have some kids who know about scary news, and then others who don’t. And you don’t want them to be scaring each other,” Olenick said.
Psychologist Gurwitch said that schools should make sure all teachers are giving the same message, emphasizing that it is a drill and there is no imminent danger. She also said that training should include answers to, “How do you talk to students about drills? How do you talk to students about current events that may be happening? What are the best ways to do that?”
Students shouldn’t go from hiding behind desks straight back to class instruction, Gurwitch advised. “There needs to be a way that teachers let them know what a great job they did, praising them for being able to follow instructions, and practicing some breathing before you do turn to page 47 in your science books.”
According to the city’s education department, the overview of emergency protocols they offer at the beginning of each year doesn’t include how teachers should discuss lockdown drills and the news on school shootings. Each teacher handles it differently.
During drills, many students cope with their feelings by making jokes. Ahmad’s students have said to him, “Mr., would you take a bullet for us?” “Mr., if this was real, I would climb out the window,” and “I would hold you in front of me.”
In Washington Heights, special education teacher Marilyn Ramirez said there’s usually some chaos among the students’ response. “Some kids panic like ‘We’re gonna die’ or ‘There’s a shooter here.’ I know part of it is playful, but the other part is probably coming from anxiety too.”
Jaclyn Schildkraut, associate professor of criminology at SUNY Oswego, recommends training for both staff and students, including questions that students might have about recent shootings such as Uvalde. For younger students, from prekindergarten to second grade, Schildkraut recommends a shorter training that includes hand gestures, demonstrations, and animated videos.
Teachers’ mental health
In a recent American Federation of Teachers survey of more than 1,300 pre-K-12 teachers, 44% said they were worried about the possibility of a mass shooting where they work, and 63% said their school was not prepared to deal with a mass shooting.
While drills have become part of students’ routine, many teachers never went through a lockdown drill during their time as students.
“They all knew a world before this was common practice. For those individuals, it’s about shifting the mindset of having to adopt a new reality,” Schildkraut said.
Schildkraut emphasized the need for teachers to model calm behavior. “If teachers are calm and feel empowered, which can be done through training, the kids are OK. If the teachers are anxiety ridden and ramped up over this, the kids are the exact same way. Because if a teacher is nervous, or scared, or frustrated or anxious, or any of those emotions, kids can sense that.”
Without training, New York City teachers find it challenging to manage their students’ emotions, as well as their own.
“It’s very intense, especially after horrible things like the shooting in Texas,” Orlenick said. “Teachers are good at being calm and reassuring in all kinds of situations. But it is emotionally taxing. It shouldn’t be on teachers to be in a line of fire between kids and guns.”
Carrión said there’s too much responsibility put on teachers. “I don’t see the same amount of accountability on the city as a whole in terms of what they are doing to make sure everyone is as safe as possible,” she said.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states that staff should be trained to consider their own trauma when discussing and conducting drills. For those who’ve experienced recent trauma or loss, the school should provide the adequate resources or services.
Criminology professor Schildkraut said that training is what allows drills to be effective. For the past four years she has provided training for the Syracuse school district, and her research has pointed to the fact that training can address inconsistencies among schools and districts, as well as anxieties that may arise.
“Just telling people to go do a drill is basically saying the state of New York tells us we have to do four drills. Let’s just get this done and check the box to say we did it,” Schildkraut said.
That’s what many New York City teachers say is happening.
In Washington Heights, Ramirez said, “I’ve been teaching for 17 years. Years ago, we did get [training]. But in recent years, we haven’t gotten any training, and some teachers are confused on what exactly we are supposed to do.”
Are drills effective?
The research on whether or not lockdown drills prevent death in the case of a shooting is inconclusive.
Experts like Schildkraut believe drills help build muscle memory that would allow people to follow emergency protocols when their thinking is impaired by stress.
Some teachers believe in the importance of drills and want more resources to ensure they’re done properly. “I think that the drills are important because we need to prepare, but we need to improve how we do the drills and make sure that everybody is trained,” Ramirez said.
Meanwhile, other teachers believe drills can foster a culture of fear in schools.
“Lockdown drills exist to protect against a thing that statistically probably won’t happen. I think by doing lockdown drills, it makes it feel like it’s more likely to happen. Which I think does create a level of anxiety around being in school,” Ahmad said. “Freak accidents like fires happen, right? But a lockdown drill means there’s a malicious party that’s impacting us and impacting our feeling of safety.”
Some students also wonder whether or not they would be effective in case of an emergency.
“Would these actually work in real life? I appreciate the effort to implement the drills, but they seem too good to be true. It won’t work in the real life scenario,” said Aria Hossain, a junior at Hillcrest High School in Queens.
Hossain wished her school would address school shootings that make national news. Her school addressed what happened in Uvalde during morning announcements, but that was it, she said.
“Maybe because they thought it was too much of a topic for them to talk about,” she said. “But that’s more reason to talk about it. And they didn’t really provide support to students who are having anxiety.”
Gurwitch said, “This is part of students’ worlds now, but there are ways to make sure that they can be as effective as possible, causing students to feel more prepared and their mental health less at risk.”
Whether or not lockdown drills are effective, they are mandated by the state. As of now, students will continue to practice them. Considering the lack of training, the question is how.
Marcela Rodrigues-Sherley is a reporting intern for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Marcela at firstname.lastname@example.org.