Schools have historically been and continue to be targets of gun violence. According to Education Week’s 2023 School Shooting Tracker, 51 school shootings on K-12 properties resulted in injuries or death in 2022. As of June 15, there were 23 shootings in 2023, including a six-year-old boy who shot and injured a teacher in a Virginia Elementary School classroom. Recent high-profile school shootings, such as the 2022 Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, remind educators that schools can be targets. Despite personal or political opinions about gun laws or the role of educators who rightfully claim, “This is not what I signed up for,” it has become their reality.
Citizens and media nationwide have criticized the law enforcement and school district responses to the Uvalde and Parkland school shootings. For instance, responders in Uvalde were denounced for a 73-minute delay in entering the classroom and engaging the shooter. The 2019 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report noted, “Forty-eight minutes and two seconds after the first shots were fired, law enforcement had gained control of all the halls and stairwells inside building 12.” The criticisms reinforce the criticality of preparedness, training, and exercises for school employees. While teachers historically have been taught to rely on law enforcement in an active assailant response, many incidents are over before law enforcement arrives. Additionally, the varied circumstances of individual jurisdictions make it difficult to ensure rapid law enforcement response times and necessitate a shift toward training teachers to respond before law enforcement arrives.
Educators as First Responders
Students look to their teachers for safety, guidance, comfort, and leadership. Whether by choice or not, teachers are the first line of defense for students’ safety. Despite only receiving traditional educator training, academic, administrative, and support staff are now tasked with serving as first responders to events such as school shootings. Educators must be mentally and physically prepared to protect themselves and their students from harm.
As school shootings increased, institutions implemented policies and technologies to secure schools and prevent intruders and violent incidents. However, technologies and procedures are only as effective as the trained personnel. Based on anecdotal experiences, educators note minimal training on active shooter protocols. When training is provided, it can be infrequent and delayed until late into the school year, a situation that both the authors and teachers find concerning.
For instance, the Government Accountability Office noted in its June 2020 K-12 Characteristics of School Shooters Report that the second-highest number of school shootings in the 2009-2010 through 2018-2019 school years occurred in September. When the statistic was narrowed to “school-targeted” shootings, September had the highest number. Since September marks the start of the school year in parts of the country, the lack of knowledge, skills, and training for incoming teachers regarding school safety – particularly preventing and responding to an active shooter incident – is concerning. Teachers with minimal training likely need a refresher. New teachers entering the profession, and their students, are increasingly vulnerable.
A Critical Training Oversight
There is an apparent lack of formal discussion and training among preservice teachers concerning school safety. In this context, “preservice teacher” refers to a college student enrolled in a teacher education program who has not been employed as a teacher. In March of 2023, a fellow teacher at a public school in New Jersey directed student teachers – defined as students teaching in a classroom under the supervision of a certified teacher to qualify for a degree in education – to educator Danielle Arias to discuss school safety. The college students had several questions about school safety, none of which their veteran supervising teacher felt prepared to answer. They expressed fear of a safety situation occurring in their classrooms after becoming full-time educators and anxiety toward their current personal safety as students. When asked what their teacher program offered to prepare them for safety challenges as current students and future teachers, one of them replied, “They teach us nothing about this. It’s disturbing, actually; it’s like some big secret everyone is afraid to talk about. But we need to talk about it.” Those same students experienced an active shooter threat on their college campus a few days after that conversation. They later explained that many of their professors did not know what to do when they received a text message regarding a potential violent threat on campus.
The avoidance of school discussions does not seem to be a new phenomenon. Throughout 21 years of teaching, Arias observed a pattern of student teachers in the district lacking knowledge of response procedures during school safety drills. Despite their serious concerns about preparedness and response, none of the student teachers she worked with had any training in their teacher education curriculum on school safety or active shooter response. A student teacher in the Fall of 2021 said she wished her college had given her a basic idea of how to respond in a safety situation. Another current student teacher also did not know about active shooter response when he began student teaching. Although school shootings have increased throughout the years, personal observation shows that there has been little or no increase in the education and preparation of preservice teachers.
Magnitude of Deficiency
In March 2022, a preliminary study by Arias in an unpublished master’s thesis at Nova Southeastern University whether preservice teachers received active shooter training in their undergraduate teacher education program. The study analyzed the training’s effectiveness by determining how prepared preservice teachers felt about responding to an active shooter threat in a K-12 classroom. A request to distribute a survey to undergraduate students in education programs who were currently enrolled or about to enter the student teaching part of their curriculum was sent to 15 accredited colleges and universities throughout New Jersey. The survey, which received responses from 63 individuals, was also sent to the superintendents of nine K-12 public school districts in New Jersey.
Most respondents (85%) had not received active shooter training in their education programs. However, several participants reported that the information they did learn regarding active shooter protocols was mentioned during their student teaching placement either by a cooperating teacher or by participating in a school drill. One student stated, “We participated in a lockdown drill during student teaching; however, this is the only training we get that is related to this topic.” Another said, “I have received no training, and my cooperating teacher has not told me any protocols regarding emergencies.” Moreover, only 38% of the respondents participated in an active shooter drill with students during their student teaching placement. The participants revealed a lack of active shooter education during this integral time in their teacher training.
A significant number of respondents (88.3%) did not feel prepared or confident in responding to an active shooter incident in a school. There was a small contingency (6.7%) of those who felt very confident and an even smaller number who felt completely confident (5%). One student teacher stated, “I know what to do when asked, but I am not sure if the moment ever came, I would feel fully prepared.” Another student teacher who felt very confident stated, “I guess I don’t know what I don’t know. I feel like it’s not hard to close the lights and hide in the classroom.” Comments like these lead to questions about the actual preparedness of the student teachers who believe themselves to be completely confident.
Recommendations for Action
Given the insufficient emphasis on safety in teacher training programs as reported in this study, incoming teachers often experience a sense of unpreparedness and would benefit from active shooter training before the school year commences.
- School districts should include targeted violence training, protective action training such as ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate), Run, Hide, Fight, or Department of Justice produced guidance, and school crisis response training as part of the onboarding process for new hires before the start of the academic year. This training should also cover other types of crises, such as natural, technological, and human-caused disasters. Additionally, the training should extend beyond response strategies and incorporate prevention and detection aspects, focusing on threat assessment and observation skills to identify potential threats and intervene proactively to ensure a safer learning environment.
- Schools should prioritize conducting regular and developmentally appropriate drills involving all staff and students throughout the school year to ensure preparedness and reinforce safety measures.
- College and university teacher education programs should begin a program review and consider a school safety and security course, including violent assailant prevention and protection training, as part of its curriculum. Students that participated in the study felt that adding a course or unit of study would be most helpful in preparing to respond to an active shooter event in a school. They also believe regular participation in drills and workshops would help increase confidence and preparedness.
- Colleges should integrate a dedicated unit of study within a course or offer regular training opportunities through lectures delivered by public safety professionals, workshops, and practical drills.
The benefits of colleges offering training on active shooter span beyond the scope of the classroom. Gun violence is impacting many areas of the culture, including but not limited to public schools, college campuses, workplaces, supermarkets, shopping malls, nightclubs, movie theaters, places of worship, and public gatherings. College students who receive active shooter training in their programs would be better prepared for an incident in their future classroom and other areas of their lives.
Active shooter events continue to threaten staff and students’ physical, psychological, and emotional well-being in public schools. The increasing frequency of school shootings raises concerns about the preparedness of incoming teachers and current staff to handle such incidents.
The timing, consistency, and adequacy of school exercises and training for in-service teachers seem to be limited, as none of the student teachers in the study stated they had a course or unit of study on school safety or active shooter during their education programs. They report feeling ill-prepared to respond should an incident occur in their school or classroom when they become employed teachers. Implementing a more robust and consistent approach to active shooter training in teacher education programs is crucial and will yield more confident, prepared teachers entering the workforce.
Educators and public safety professionals understand that providing training at an early stage and with greater intensity increases people’s sense of preparedness. If teacher education programs made school safety and security – including active shooter response – mandatory, it would ensure that teachers are well-prepared to handle such incidents from the beginning of their careers. Preparing incoming teachers in advance would alleviate the burden on administrators to provide rushed training at the busy start of a school year. It would also enable administrators to plan more comprehensive training sessions, drills, and exercises for the staff and students as the year unfolds. It is imperative that training for preservice teachers be considered not as an option but as an essential component integrated into teacher training and education programs.
Danielle Arias, M.S., is an educator with 22 years of experience teaching in New Jersey public schools. Her passion for school safety led her to earn a master’s degree in Disaster and Emergency Management from Nova Southeastern University. Ms. Arias actively researches and enhances school safety measures and preparedness within her school district and local community.
Jesse Spearo, Ph.D., is a 20-year veteran of public safety. He has served at every level of government and responded to dozens of disasters in a command or general staff role. He currently serves as assistant director for the Department of Emergency Management for Miami-Dade County.
Kelley L. Davis
Kelley L. Davis, Ph.D., has been a faculty member at Nova Southeastern University since 2003 and has been a professor and director of Disaster and Emergency Management for over 12 years. Before her academic career, Dr. Davis spent five years in law enforcement. She specializes in training medical personnel in the recognition of and medical countermeasures for chemical and biological agents.