A Parent's Guide to School Safety Toolkit

2.4 Training and Drills

Firefighter talks to children about school trainings and drills

Drills are essential in preparing a school for an emergency, but training goes beyond this. Training exercises are a form of staff training that allows for assessing, practicing, and improving performance. Training exercises can range from table-top exercises, where discussions are held about different situations, to full-scale exercises, which incorporate community partners and resources. Training and drill exercises offer the opportunity for students and staff to learn their roles and responsibilities before, during, and after any type of emergency. Practice of emergency procedures through drills and training can reduce confusion, panic, and even serious injury for both staff and students.

Drills and practical exercises of each Standard Response Protocol (SRP) directive provide additional instruction and action-based responses. This aids in creating a sense of “muscle memory," which has been shown to decrease anxiety and maximize potentially lifesaving reaction time in a crisis. Full-scale exercises may include local law enforcement, fire department and emergency medical service personnel participating in the training activities with campus students and staff.

Example of an Exit sign for students and staff to exit the building

In schools and offices, there are various exits, numerous doors, and in some of the larger schools and offices, it can feel like walking through a corn maze. Evacuation drills prepare students and staff for the best way to exit the building and where to meet up to do a headcount to ensure everyone has safely exited the building. A drill is practiced on a regular basis, so that every student and staff member knows how to leave the building and where to meet up.

It is important for schools to ensure that accommodations are made for students who have temporary or permanent accessibility needs during a drill. Students and staff with physical, cognitive, and behavioral health disabilities or diagnoses need to be able to participate in drills. For example, during an evacuation or fire drill, a student or staff member in a wheelchair on the second floor needs to be able to safely exit the building, as elevators should not be used during a fire. It is also important that plans are made for students or staff who have a temporary need for accommodations; for example, they broke their leg and are using crutches.

Plans should also be made for students who may be at risk for getting lost or hiding due to the loud noise and activity. For example, students who have an intellectual or developmental disability, are deaf or blind, or who are on the Autism Spectrum. Such accommodations create equal access and participation in life saving drill practice. In addition to plans and accommodations, it is critical that there is a system in place to ensure that each student is accounted for.

If your child has a disability which limits or prevents them from accessing and participating in a drill, work with your child’s school to ensure accommodations are formally included in your child’s 504 or Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Please keep in mind, based on your child’s diagnosis or disability, additional preparation and practice for your child and staff may be necessary beyond the regular drill schedule.

Why should my child participate in drills?

Officer instructing students on where to go and what to do during a drill

How someone reacts during a crisis or emergency depends on how well they have been trained. Research shows how our brains react during a crisis. The cerebellum is responsible for the “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” responses. The limbic system is responsible for emotions, and the cerebral cortex is involved with processes including language processing, planning, and logic. During times of elevated stress, such as during an emergency or crisis situation, the cerebral cortex (logic and planning) can be overtaken by the cerebellum (fight, flight, freeze) or the limbic system (emotional responses). Being trained, and practicing what steps to take in an emergency, makes it possible for the cerebral cortex to remain in control.

Participating in a drill, rather than solely being told how to respond, allows you to go through the motions and feel how it might feel during the actual event. For example, imagine that you are to give a presentation. There is a difference in outcome between thinking about what you are going to say during the presentation and practicing the presentation by saying what you are going to say. When you practice, you may recognize that your plan does not work, or that your timing is off. The more you practice, the more it becomes automatic, your nerves decrease, and your performance improves. The same is true with drills and training.

The initial training for all school personnel is usually completed at the beginning of the year. Most districts also do a broad overview of the SRP with students at the beginning of the year, so they know what to do, especially if an emergency occurs prior to the first drill. As each drill is scheduled for the various directives, students are taught a more in-depth explanation of what actions are expected for that specific directive. Since a lockdown drill can occur numerous weeks into the academic year, the initial lesson is very basic. As time draws closer to the lockdown drill, students are taught about what they will experience, why lockdowns are issued, and what student behavior and actions are expected.

What can my child expect during a “Lockdown” drill?

One drill that has brought up discussion and concern in some parents is the lockdown drill. The lockdown response is used in the event of immediate danger inside the school, such as a school attacker. This drill is sometimes called the “active shooter drill." The goal of this drill, along with all drills, is to acclimate students and staff with the correlated course of action that is in place to best protect them, so they can react quickly and safely in an emergency. The concern often involves the use of simulations during the lockdown drill, due to the risk of creating or exacerbating traumatic reactions in students.

The Texas School Safety Center does not recommend using live scenario drills involving simulations that mimic an actual incident, also known as “active shooter drills with simulations,” when students are present. We recommend that schools avoid using role players or explosive sounds (for example, blank rounds, airsoft rifles, etc.) to enhance or simulate a drill. These simulations can cause traumatic reactions in both children and adults, especially when there is a history of trauma. Psychological trauma can impact a child’s brain development and effects of trauma can be long-lasting. As such, the TxSSC recommends that schools are mindful of the impact of active shooter drills with simulations, especially when it comes to the involvement of students.

During a lockdown drill, an announcement will be made, generally over the public address system, and the school will go into lockdown. Language should be clear that a drill is taking place and not an actual emergency. Teachers will scan the hall and pull any students, staff, and visitors into their classrooms, and lock their classroom doors. The lights will be turned off in the classroom and the students and teacher will hide out of view from the window. The door to the classroom may not be opened by anyone inside the classroom, regardless of what is said from someone that might be trying to get in. The occupants of the room are taught to remain quiet. The classroom door may only be opened by emergency responders (if they are participating in the drill). The emergency responder tells the students what instructions would be given to them if this was a real event. As classrooms are “cleared” by emergency responders, the class will return to normal instruction.

Active Threat Scenario

Police car's blue and red lights are turned on during an active threat scenario

During an active threat inside the school, everyone inside school classrooms is taught to stay quiet so that the attacker does not know where people are located. During the lockdown drill, which is the drill used when a threat is located inside the school building, the skill of staying quiet is important to practice. During this drill, and in a real-life event, student and staff cellphones are to be silenced, and everyone is to stay quiet. In a real event, if a student has not silenced their phone and it is ringing, or they receive a text notification, it could place them and others in danger. In addition, the light from the phone while texting or receiving a call could give away the student’s location to the attacker.

Most active threats are over within five minutes. Some school districts may ask parents and students to refrain from contacting one another for the first five minutes of a perceived threat or crisis. This delayed contact time gives school district administrators and first responders a few minutes in which to gather accurate information and respond. Having patience during an active threat situation is difficult, but safety must be the priority.

Teachers often utilize age and developmentally appropriate language and techniques to calm students during drills and to maximize students’ sense of safety. For younger children, some teachers use silent games, snacks, or stories to encourage silence during a lockdown drill, while explaining the need to stay quiet and in place.

What drills are required?

Texas legislation authorizes the Texas Education Agency (TEA) commissioner, in consultation with the TxSSC and the Texas State Fire Marshal, to provide procedures for evacuating and securing schools during an emergency and to designate the number of mandated drills that schools must conduct each semester of the school year.

The number of mandated school drills for school districts and open-enrollment charter schools may not exceed eight (8) drills each semester, and sixteen (16) drills for the school year. To be clear, Texas Education Code 37.114 states that no more than eight (8) drills, with the exception of evacuation or fire drills, may be required by the commissioner during a semester. However, districts may conduct additional drills to meet the district’s or school’s needs. In addition to the mandated drills, districts must comply with their local fire marshal’s requirements regarding evacuation or fire drills.

The TEA commissioner set the following minimum frequency of drills by type in 2020. This schedule is subject to change.

  • Drill Frequency
  • Secure (Lockout) 1 per school year
  • Lockdown 2 per school year
    (one per semester)
  • Evacuate 1 per school year
  • Shelter-in-Place (for hazmat) 1 per school year
  • Shelter for Severe Weather 1 per school year
  • Fire Evacuation 4 per school year
    (two per semester)

In addition, school districts and open-enrollment charter schools should consult with their local fire marshal and comply with their local fire marshal's requirements and recommendations. Local fire marshals generally require one (1) fire drill per month where 10 or more days of instruction occur.

TxSSC recommendations regarding school drills:

  • Drills should be clearly announced to educators and students prior to start of the drill. Language should be clear that a drill that taking place, not an actual emergency.
  • Parents should have advance notice of drills.
  • Language communicated prior to and during a drill should include using age and developmentally appropriate language, while considering the student’s disabilities or diagnoses and primary language.
  • Accountability protocols should always be initiated and followed.
  • Signs should be posted on the main entry notifying parents and other visitors when a drill is in progress and that access is restricted until the drill is over. Parents are advised to not participate in drills, for the safety of everyone involved, and to maintain order during drills.
  • Staff members should be trained in recognizing traumatic stress reactions so that they are able to support students who may be exhibiting distress or trauma reactions before, during, or after the drill, until they can be seen by a school-employed mental health professional for evaluation and/or referral.
  • Drills should be practiced at varying times and days.

What Should My Child Know?

Explain the purpose of drills to your child. For example, the likelihood of ever being in a building during a fire is highly unlikely, yet it is still important to do evacuation or fire drills. It is also recommended that you practice fire escape routes in your house, including how to get out of a second story.

Reassure your child that measures have been taken to maintain their safety. Using age and developmentally appropriate language, explain that teachers, administrators, police, EMS, and a vast number of other adults have planned for and trained on what to do to ensure their safety. These arrangements are practiced with the drills that schools conduct, and your child’s attention and cooperation is very important during these drills. The better they understand and participate, the better the outcome will be if a real event occurs.

Talk with your child before and after each of the initial drills to identify any special concerns or fears your child may have. It is vital to listen with empathy and provide constant reassurance of their safety at school. If you have any concerns, speak with your school’s administrators so they are aware of your child’s feelings or concerns.

It is also important to explain to your child, using age and developmentally appropriate language, how to respond when law enforcement arrives in a real active threat emergency, such as an active shooter. Law enforcement is there to keep your child safe and to stop the threat. It can be quite scary for a child to hear a police officer shouting commands at them or having their guns drawn. Talking with your child about what to expect, if this occurs, helps your child to understand that law enforcement is there to keep them safe.

Talk With Your Child About Law Enforcement

  • Law enforcement’s purpose is to stop the active threat as quickly as possible and to keep them safe.
  • If shots were fired, officers will proceed directly to the area in which they were last heard.
  • Officers may wear regular patrol uniforms or external bulletproof vests, Kevlar helmets, and other tactical equipment.
  • Officers may be armed with rifles, as well as handguns.
  • Officers may shout commands and may push individuals to the ground for the individuals’ safety.
  • It is important to remain calm and to listen to and follow officers’ instructions.
  • Put down any items in your hands (bags, jackets, phones).
  • Immediately raise hands and spread fingers.
  • Always keep hands visible.
  • Avoid making quick movements toward officers or holding on to them for safety.
  • Avoid pointing, screaming, or yelling.
  • Do not ask officers for help or direction when evacuating, just proceed in the direction from which officers are entering the premises.

Your child’s focus should be on following the directives given by school staff and the protocols practiced during drills. It is important that your child knows they are not to seek out information about the active threat, as it can put them in harms way. If your child is in a situation to safely call 911 during an active threat, there is specific information that is helpful for law enforcement to know. Key pieces of information to give to 911 include:

  • Location of the active threat.
  • Number of attackers, if more than one.
  • Physical description of attacker(s).
  • Number and type of weapons held by the attacker(s).
  • Number of potential victims at the location.