Creating Non-Fear Based Active Shooter Training

April 10, 2020

Creating Non-Fear-Based Active Shooter Training


Normalize and Desensitize, Don’t Traumatize


Sgt. Mark Box, Sgt. Josh Hall


Public Safety Department


Evangel University


1111 N. Glenstone Ave.


Springfield, MO




1. Normalize the drills


2. Finding awareness


3. Empowerment of the individual


4. Desensitizing fear


5. Slowing down the scenario


6. Using safe props


7. Combating the trauma


8. Discussions and debriefings


9. Make counseling available


We Must Normalize, to Desensitize, Not Traumatize

When a friend asked me how we train for active shooters, I gave him the typical Law Enforcement answer. I explained how we go through drills, quickly moving down school hallways and practice looking in rooms, clearing them and then moving on.


Usually there are actors playing victims who are yelling and laying on the floor as if they were shot to help the realism. When we find the room with the shooter, we try to shoot the bad guy before he shoots us without hurting any innocents.


I explain that we use air-soft guns, but it still stings pretty badly if they hit you, so there is a hint of reality. I told him that it’s a good refresher for if that situation ever happens, but it is also fun.


My friend said, “It’s fun for you, because you’re Law Enforcement, but the active shooter drills are putting fear in a lot of the students. They’re experiencing anxiety from it, and some students are actually being traumatized. There needs to be a non-fear-based method of doing active shooter drill/training in the schools.”


My initial thought after this conversation was, there is no way to show someone how to be safe from a “bad person” who could potentially kill you, without teaching them about a “bad person” who could potentially kill you. They need to be scared of what can happen so they will take the proper precautions.


Every day parents tell their kids not to talk to strangers, (stranger danger) why? Something bad might happen. Don’t touch the hot frying pan, why? You might get burned. Wash your hands or you might get sick. Lock your door, you might get robbed. Don’t, don’t, don’t… because they love them and want them to be safe.


I convinced myself you have to show the ‘bad’ that can happen to justify the actions of being safe, but his words kept running through my head, “Non-fear-based active shooter drills/training.” I thought, there might be a way.


Normalize the Drills

The drills must be as normal and expected as fire drills. Students are never afraid when the fire alarm sounds, they are either annoyed or happy to be getting out of class for a bit. If there is a real fire, the students are already in a safe place when they find out. They have become desensitized by fire drills, so there is no fear.


Nobody wants a student to be traumatized by the very training designed to keep them safe. We can change the course of active shooter drills by keeping this phrase in mind: We must NORMALIZE to DESENSITIZE, not TRAUMATIZE!


When we normalize training without scaring the students, they become used to it, just like they are used to fire drills. Getting used to the drills, the students become desensitized and simply carry out the instructions they have been given. They do the normal things the same way over and over and there is no trauma, anxiety or fear involved; it’s just another drill.


Finding Awareness

“I thought my job was to remind people of the terror inherent in a terrifying situation, but no one needed that reminder. Every new school shooting provides it instead,” says Jason Perry, opinion contributor, The Hill.


Faculty, staff, and older students are only too aware of the school shootings of the past. Every time there is an arrest made in a school where a student brought a weapon, or even talked about bringing a weapon, the news spreads like a wild fire.


The conversation starts again and fear sweeps over the students in schools across the nation. We need to bring the conversation back to the non-fear-based teaching that a school shooting is unlikely, but like fire drills, we want to be prepared. So, we make the drills normal.


In New Mexico, schools are required to have emergency drills once a week for the first four weeks: one active shooter drill, one evacuation drill, and two fire drills. Four additional drills are required for the rest of the school year, two fire drills and two emergency drills determined by the school, according to the Albuquerque Public School News


Desensitizing Fear


Empowerment of the individual means the student, staff member, and the teacher. It has been said that, “Knowledge is power.” By that same token, the knowledge that there is a plan, the knowledge of what to do and where to go in a crisis is empowerment. That is what drills are for, not to scare or traumatize, but to educate and empower.


 “Emphasize that schools are safe, validate their feelings, and let their questions be the guide as to how much information to provide,” says Cindy Long, writer,, speaking about school shootings that have happened. We shouldn’t go too far, but teach what students need to know for the drill.


Giving the students confidence in crisis is the thing to strive for. Teachers should talk about what to do in an almost casual way to put students at ease. The all school drill is a must, but the conversations need to be in the classrooms. The repetition of reminding students what to do and working out scenarios as a game in the classroom will make it non-stressful and fun for them.


For the teachers, the mentality has to be survival at all costs for the students. Teachers must be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the students safe, even if it’s life threatening to them.


However, students need to be protected from the trauma, as well, if possible. Not only the trauma that can come from hearing about a school shooting, but also the trauma from overzealous active shooter instructors that believe that instilling fear is the only way to train.


“The first problem with active shooter training in schools is that no one is really doing anything to vet the trainers themselves,” says Jason Perry, opinion contributor, The Hill. There needs to be good instructors that aren’t fear mongers. Perry goes on to say, “Instructors, especially those working inside schools, must be willing to take time to build a relationship with an audience.”


It is important for the instructors to get to know the teachers and students to determine the way the drills need to go. It takes more time, but it is worth it in the end.


Slowing Down the Scenario

The exercise drills used in non-fear-based active shooter/threat training should be to help know what to do without instilling paralyzing fear. Teaching and learning need to be the primary goals. Instructors need to communicate this at the beginning.


Slowly walking someone through the process can help them gain the confidence needed to respond in a real event. As the event is slowed down, the participants will take in more information.


A true scenario will be much faster than a training exercise. However seeing the scenario at a slower pace can help someone process the possibilities, and build muscle memory. Walking through an active shooter or threat scenario will help students realize there are options available to them in a crisis.


The goal of these scenarios needs to emphasize training and learning. Unannounced drills and exercises can, and often do, increase fear within the students and educational staff. Perhaps over time this might help but not in most situations, as active shooter and threat trainings are relatively new, compared to fire and tornado drills. Otherwise, failure is inevitable and the participants do not see this as important. This can lead to increased fear during a real-life event.


For our younger students in lower elementary grades, to limit fear, an emphasis needs to be placed on following the teacher. It should be explained that this scenario is in response to someone who is inside the building, and doesn’t belong there. Younger students should not be excluded from non-fear-based active shooter/threat training, but it does need to be done differently.


While teaching an elementary class in the Akron City School District, Akron police officer Dan Bickett, called this “lockdown.” During his session, he consistently compared the lockdown scenario to a fire drill and tornado drill. He also used the terms of “bad guy” and “stranger danger.” This gets the point across to younger elementary aged students, without producing unnecessary fear or anxiety.


Using Safe Props

Using safe props is important to facilitate non-fear-based active shooter/threat training. Recently some schools have implemented life-like drills simulating gun violence, complete with triage scenes, and more. Props such as rubber bullets or blanks were used. In addition, these were also unannounced, causing some students to panic and text “Good-byes” to their parents and loved ones.


A drill conducted in an East Orange, New Jersey middle school in 2018, caused one student to wonder if she was going to “finish the day alive.” When conducting tornado and fire drills, those aren’t done with simulating a fire or use of wind for a tornado. Use of safe props and environment will help students and participants focus on their responses and options instead of taking in the scene.


Make sure that all alerts and announcements clearly highlight that this is a drill. When posting alerts on official social media outlets, websites and school bulletin boards, make sure that the parents also understand that it is a drill. Parents can help students reduce trauma as well.


Communication of imitating the drill needs to be established. An announcement of “This is a drill” is a good clear way to communicate that the drill has started. This will avoid unnecessary panic or fear for the students about to experience the drill. As the drill is properly announced, the participants will begin to observe and absorb what is happening.


Combating the Trauma

In spite of the best efforts taken into consideration by schools and law enforcement agencies, trauma can still occur for some. Just the mention of a security breach or active shooter in another state may cause some to be anxious.


That is why it is important to involve discussions and debriefings for all that participate in the active shooter/threat drills. It’s important to praise students as they follow direction, and praise them again as they complete the drill. Naming the


specific ways they performed well will help build confidence and can also help reduce possible trauma. Look for ways to praise students on specific actions they took to care for themselves and fellow students. Start with positive actions first, then move to address the weaker areas.


Discussions and Debriefings

After each drill, be sure to debrief and make use of an after-action report that evaluates the event, identifies any weaknesses or gaps, and document lessons learned and successes achieved. Make sure that the recommendations are worked into the next drill.


Learning is a key component here, so it is important to review what went well, and what needs improvement moving forward. As the participants are reminded that this is training, they will take in the experience. There will be a desire to learn and grow through the drill experience.


Remind the students and participants to keep practicing calming/coping skills for a day or two after the drill as it takes time for our bodies to adjust. Remind parents and teachers through whatever form of communication that is used, to praise the students for participating in the drill and point out what they did well.


Students who felt anxious or worried need to be reminded that it is common to feel this way. It is recommended that parents and students use this time to discuss family emergenc


plans. Transparent communication is vital to planning and execution of non-fear-based active shooter/ threat training.


Make Counseling Available

It is recommended to provide a mental health referral for participants who are still struggling a week after the drill. Any signs of visible trauma should be taken seriously. A referral to other resources in the community might be necessary. The topic of fear will have to be discussed.


Most experts believe it should not be avoided and is an integral part of surviving these events. Joseph Melvin, a Detective/School Resource Officer with the Georgetown Police Department in Sussex County, Delaware, states the following, “I agree that the improper facilitation of these drills may be traumatic for students and staff. Any drill conducted within a school needs to be thoroughly and thoughtfully planned in a comprehensive manner, leveraging resources from within each community.”


Normalizing these drills with non-fear-based training and instructors is more important than ever to start to desensitize the students to the fear they have been experiencing. The students need to feel confident and empowered by the drills, in the hopes it will not be traumatizing.


For additional information and resources, please review the US Department of Homeland Security and more links listed below:




Age-Appropriate Elementary School Safety Trainings. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2020, from


Albuquerque, P. S. (2019, August 6). Active Shooter & Evacuation Drills Replace Some Fire Drills. Retrieved from


Connecticut, N. (2020, February 11). Children Terrified by Active Shooter Drills: Teacher Unions. Retrieved March 13, 2020, from


Creating School Active Shooter/Intruder Drills. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2020, from


Long, C. (2020, March 23). Helping Students Cope in the Wake of the Sandy Hook School Shooting. Retrieved from


Melvin, J. (2019, February 27). Active shooter drills could save students’ lives: opinion. Retrieved March 13, 2020, from


Perry, J. O. C. (2019, April 15). Active shooter training fails because it relies on fear. Retrieved from


Walker, T. (2020, February 27). Unannounced Active Shooter Drills Scaring Students Without Making Them Safer. Retrieved March 13, 2020, from