New York Bill Seeks to Make Lockdown Drills Less Traumatic for Students

Lawmakers and parent activists say that requiring four drills a year is excessive.

This story was originally published by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America. Sign up for The Trace’s newsletters here.

Amid mounting criticism of active shooter drills in schools as ineffective and often traumatic, New York lawmakers are taking steps to reduce their frequency. 

bill introduced in the state legislature on April 26 would limit the number of mandatory lockdown drills to one per year, down from the four that are currently required. The measure would also require schools to notify families a week in advance of a lockdown drill and give them the option to opt out. 

“We’re basically normalizing a reality in which kids go to school and expect to be slaughtered,” the bill’s sponsor, state Senator Andrew Gounardes, told The Trace. “It’s really burdensome and traumatizing for kids. And it’s ineffective.”

New York is one of 42 states that require public schools to conduct at least one lockdown or shelter-in-place drill for students during the school year, according to an analysis of state laws and policies published by The Trace and Scary Mommy last fall, and used by activists who pushed for fewer drills.

Proponents say the drills teach situational awareness from a young age and can save lives. But in recent years the exercises have drawn criticism for terrifying students rather than empowering them, and a growing contingent of researchers and parents have questioned their efficacy. As we reported last October, active shooter drills can retraumatize children who have experienced domestic violence. 

“The reality is, when you do live drills, you stand the potential of uncovering something that you didn’t plan,” said David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. The drills have also been associated with increased anxiety, stress, and depression among children, studies have shown

Under the legislation, schools would be required to provide special accommodations for children with physical or emotional needs, including kids with a history of PTSD. The drills would also have to be age-appropriate, and teachers would thoroughly describe the exercise to students in terms they can understand.

Lawmakers are also seeking to standardize the drills, which don’t have set protocols, leaving teachers to improvise.

While the bill sets a minimum of one required lockdown drill per year, Gounardes said schools can conduct more if they wish. “We’re not saying don’t prepare kids,” he said. “We’re saying prepare them better.”

A handful of other states have quietly walked back lockdown drill requirements, or are considering it. In March, lawmakers in Georgia passed a bill requiring lockdown drills, but schools will only be mandated to conduct one per year and parents can opt out. Illinois enacted a law in 2021 ordering schools to provide advance notice of lockdown drills and allow parents to opt out. Two states — Connecticut and Maine — are considering similar bills.

The impetus for the New York legislation came from two fathers in New York City who were concerned that so many lockdown drills would traumatize their young children. Marco Pupo, 40, and Robert Murtfeld, 41, both grew up outside the United States and were disturbed by the country’s high rates of gun violence. But it didn’t touch them personally until their kindergarteners had a lockdown drill last fall that left them feeling fearful and confused. 

Pupo said that when he picked up his 5-year-old son from school after a drill, the little boy said his teacher had to “lock the doors, close down the windows, and hide because there was a bad guy trying to come into school.” Pupo said it soon became clear that his son “didn’t understand the difference between a drill and a real situation.”

Pupo spoke to other parents, including Murtfeld, who said their kids had also been terrified. One child had gotten up in the middle of the night to close the windows, fearful of an intruder, Pupo said.

Pupo and Murtfeld started looking into the state law governing lockdown drills. They learned that their kids would have to endure three more over the course of the school year and they couldn’t opt out. Using The Trace’s state-by-state breakdown of lockdown drill requirements, they discovered that New York mandated more drills each year than states that had far more shootings.

New York has the fourth-lowest rate of gun death, according to the most recent figures from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and has never had a school shooting on the scale of Columbine or Sandy Hook. Texas, where a shooter killed 21 people at an elementary school in Uvalde last year, requires three lockdown drills per year, while Florida, where 17 people were killed at a high school in Parkland in 2018, requires only one. 

A few months after the Uvalde shooting, New York City expanded lockdown drills to pre-K programs. Murtfeld calculated that kids growing up in the five boroughs would have to endure 60 lockdown drills between preschool and high school graduation. He and Pupo brought the idea of reducing the number of annual drills to local gun reform groups, which then began enlisting lawmakers to support it. 

“We don’t disrespect the safety of kids. That’s not the reason why we’re putting this forward,” Pupo said. “The reason we’re doing this is because there’s not enough research proving that the lockdown drills work, and a ton of research coming out proving that they’re actually creating certain traumas in kids.”

Gounardes, the state senator, was initially skeptical of reducing the amount of lockdown drills, given the accelerating pace of shootings in America. But when he compared New York’s gun violence toll to other states and began researching the psychological effects of active shooter drills on children, the cost-benefit analysis didn’t add up.

“Right now there are no standards for how these drills should be implemented. There’s no trauma-informed consideration,” Gounardes said. “The science is showing us that that’s actually not the right way.”

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