Many schools in Queensland are being locked down and drills are seen as an important procedure for student safety. In this blog Professor Marilyn Campbell, Associate Professor Beth Saggers and Associate Professor Adrian Kelly explore whether these drills are effective at keeping students safe and what impact they might have on students’ sense of safety and wellbeing.
Are school lockdown drills really necessary in Australia?
In 2019, it was reported that students in Queensland schools were “locked down” more than 250 times in the past two years. Schools are entrusted to keep students safe, both physically and mentally. However, there are many events, even though usually rare, that can endanger students while they are at school. These events include human initiated emergencies such as bomb threats, abductions, school shooting and terrorist attacks but, in Australia, natural disasters, such as floods, cyclones, bushfires and pandemics, are more likely to affect students at school. To carry out their duty of care, schools have students practise drills such as lockdowns and evacuation procedures in case these events occur.
There are differences between lockdown drills and evacuation drills. Lockdown drills require schools to physically gather students inside classrooms, lock the door of the classroom, tell the students to hide, and not to make any noise. These procedures were first initiated in the United States and are mainly practised in that country because of the threat of school shootings. Evacuation drills, on the other hand, gather students outside the school building to move to a safe place, calmly and quickly.
While these procedures are designed to protect students’ physical safety, what do we know of the mental distress these drills could cause? Are the drills really necessary? Are they effective? Are there any unintended harmful consequences? Do they make students feel safer in school or do they make them worry about their safety in school more?
The drill of evacuation is probably necessary, especially in the case of fire, and fire drills are a legislated requirement in Australian workplaces, meaning organisations in the Australian community do practice these kind of procedures. Lockdown drills, however, are practising for a very unlikely event and might not be necessary. Adult organisations do not practice such procedures. Even on aeroplane flights, emergency procedures are not practised physically, passengers are only exposed to films and demonstrations.
Are school lockdown drills effective?
It is difficult to determine the effectiveness of lockdown drills, although some studies try to do so. The difficulty is that although more than four million students practice lockdown in the US each year only very few of these potentially lethal events actually eventuate and assessment of the response to that particular situation cannot be solely attributed to lockdown drills. Thus, most studies only measure the students’ knowledge of what to do in a lockdown situation after they have participated in these drills.
In Australia, fortunately, we have not had experience of the same kind of school shootings as in the US, yet we still drill our students in lockdown procedures. Most state and territory education departments mandate lockdown drills, perhaps to show parents and the community that the schools are being proactive to possible threats to the physical safety of students.
The impact of school lockdown drills
There is some public concern that practising lockdowns as a prevention for harmful physical violence could potentially cause trauma in itself, especially to vulnerable students. In one South Australian primary school a newspaper article in 2016 reported that a lockdown drill entailed students hiding under desks and creating barricades from chairs. The school set up a scenario where a gunman was on the loose inside the school and, in another scenario, a crazed teacher was violently rampaging from classroom to classroom. A parent reported to the newspaper that his six-year-old daughter came home from school “highly distressed and tearful” after the lockdown drill. “She said it was put to them that they were doing the drill in the event that a bad man with a gun came into the school or if a teacher went bad in the mind,” the father said. “She said ‘it was very real and I almost wet my pants’.”
Our study looked at research examining the impact of lockdown drills on students’ sense of safety and the impact on their wellbeing. The few studies which looked at how students were impacted were poor in the way they did the research and the majority of research is conducted in the US. One American study found no differences in primary school students’ anxiety or sense of safety after one group had practised a lockdown drill and the other did not. Another American study found that high school students reported feeling less safe at school after multiple lockdown drills. Another recent 2020 study in the US showed that over 60% of students reported feeling unsafe and frightened.
What does this mean for Australian school students?
There are too few studies that look at the unintended consequences of lockdown drills on students’ mental health. The limited existing research suggests that the unintended consequences of lockdown drills are mostly negative, with students’ anxiety increasing and paradoxically feeling less safe after practising these procedures.
If education authorities in Australia feel that lockdown drills for students in schools are necessary to protect students from an extremely rare event, then perhaps schools need more guidance in how to prevent the trauma that some students experience during the drill. Although warnings are not given to practice drills to make them more effective, perhaps students could be gradually desensitised with some talking and reading about both man-made emergencies, such as bomb threats (which are sometimes experienced in schools) and natural disasters, such as fires and floods. Preparing for natural disasters may seem less anxiety producing or destroying trust in people as preparing for man-made emergencies. But we don’t know that yet.
You can read more about this research, published in Journal of School Health in the full publication by A/Prof Beth Saggers, Prof Marilyn Campbell, A/Prof Adrian Kelly, & Dr Callula Killingly, available here.
Marilyn Campbell is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her areas of research are in bullying including cyberbullying, anxiety disorders in young people and school counselling.
Beth Saggers is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology with an interest in autism, end user perspectives, mental health and wellbeing
Adrian Kelly is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at Queensland University of Technology. He researches in the areas of adolescence, mental health, and community approaches to prevention.