Mass. public schools conduct active shooter drills amid lack of state guidelines

Many Massachusetts public schools are training students for the worst-case scenario – an active shooter situation.

But as 25 Investigates found neither Massachusetts nor the federal government require this type of training and there are no guidelines for schools to follow. Additionally, the level of preparedness varies from school to school.

Thirty-nine states, including Massachusetts, require public schools to conduct general safety drills. But there is no mandate to include intruder or active shooter education into those safety drills. Therefore, the decision to conduct active shooter training is entirely up to individual school districts.

25 Investigates wanted to know what steps are being taken across the state, what methods are being used to prepare students and how often this training is taking place in the Commonwealth's public schools. We surveyed the state's more than 230 school superintendents, but only 15% of them responded by our deadline.

All but three of the respondents reported using some form of active shooter training in schools.

Our survey found varying methods are being employed. Among the most common: powerpoint presentations, videos, tabletop exercises, and drills and simulations, where an individual dramatizes an active shooter.  About 64% of the responding districts said they held simulations.

All respondents reported working with police or a security firm to develop safety protocols and many said they only trained staff on how to respond to an active shooter.

Our survey also shows most schools are using the nationally recognized ALICE safety protocol. ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate, teaches students an alternative to hiding, the method widely taught in schools 20 years ago.

"We used to tell them to hide. Now we tell them hiding is not always the best," said Chief John Carbone of the Barre Police Department, who last month held an active shooter training for his department’s first responders. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."

The Quabbin School District, which Barre is a part of, also conducts age-appropriate active shooter drills for students where ALICE techniques are taught. Students get three options – run, hide and fight, according to Chief Carbone, and, depending on the circumstances, students can decide for themselves which option works best.

Students and staff alike need to know what to do should a real emergency arise, he added.

"We certainly don't want children to be afraid to be in school, but we want them to understand that there are safety protocols that we have in place and what to do in case of an emergency," said Dr. Sheila Muir, Quabbin Regional Schools Superintendent.

During last month's Barre active shooter simulation, students, staff and parents of Quabbin Regional High School volunteered to participate in the training, where students played the role of victims and one individual pretended to be the gunman. The chiefs of the Barre Police and Fire Departments carefully observed first responder's actions.

The simulation, a first of its kind in the Quabbin School District, was intended to test the active school shooter skills Barre Police and Fire first responders have learned up to that point – eliminating the threat, rescue, medical treatment and evacuation.

"Everybody should have a plan," said Chief Joseph Solomon of the Methuen Police Department, who chairs the School Safety and Security Committee of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.

"Everybody is using different types of responses. What it really requires is a good cohesion between the school department and the police department. These should be normal practice. Every single year, every single school should do a least one full-scale drill and routinely whether it's monthly or bi-monthly or every other month."

Solomon firmly believes active shooter training in public schools should be mandatory and uniform across the state.

Jill Battal, a school psychologist and president of the Massachusetts School Psychologists Association, is not convinced active shooter training should be required in public schools and says there is not enough evidence confirming the effectiveness of the training.

"To my knowledge there hasn't been a lot of research on the active shooter simulation drills," said Battal. "There is, however, research that supports practicing a lockdown procedure. It helps staff and students be more prepared. Schools and communities really need to weigh the pros and cons of doing a full simulation versus another type of preparedness activity."

Battal adds that no matter which emergency preparedness method a school chooses, a mental health professional should always be involved, adding that the realistic nature of these drills or simulation may impact some students, particularly the younger ones.

"They should be present not just during the drill but really in planning the drill and making sure that we are setting it up for success."

Some parents we spoke to for this story also wondered if an active shooter simulation was the best approach for all children.  Some even worry that, if not done with care, it could do more harm than good.

Quiana Agbai is a mother of two children who attend elementary school in Hyde Park. While she agrees that schools need to be prepared to respond in the event of a tragedy, she believes the simulations may prove to be too emotionally stressful for some children.

"I would love to see the teachers being trained. I think to put that anxiety on the children who a lot of the time, developmentally, have a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what’s staged that’s really hard."

Another concern for Agbai is the potential for training the perpetrators.

"In a few incidents the perpetrators are peers, other students. So now they are getting the training so they can proactively know this is how the school will respond, these are the doors that would be locked. It's kind of disconcerting to think that a perpetrator would be getting trained in the same way."

The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association tells 25 Investigates they are proactively creating an active shooter curriculum to be used at schools across the state. But currently there is nothing on the books to require districts to follow any set protocols.

The run, hide and fight concept is endorsed at the local, state and federal levels, including by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.