Warning: Spoilers for 13 Reasons Why season 4 ahead.
The threat of a school shooting has loomed large in 13 Reasons Why, from Tyler Down’s (Devin Druid) cache of weapons in season 1 to his attempt to commit a shooting during a school dance. In the sixth episode of season 4, the fears are still palpable as Liberty High goes into lockdown for a hyper-realistic active shooter drill — but not everyone knows it’s a drill, and the experience traumatizes students and faculty alike. Just how legal are unannounced active shooter drills, and how do they affect students mentally?
In the episode, Principal Bolan (Steven Weber) announces over the PA that the school is going into a "code red hard lockdown." Right away everyone jumps into action: students are instructed to help barricade doors and hide under tables and desks, visibly shaken. Liberty High staff appear to be just as in the dark as students whether it's a drill or not.
Since the 1999 Columbine shooting, active shooter drills have become commonplace in schools across the U.S. The drills range in intensity, from the sound of gunfire to actors or police posing as shooters and "gunmen" rattling classroom doorknobs — much like the one in 13 Reasons Why. Following the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, the Department of Education adjusted its shelter-in-place response recommendation to “run, hide, fight,” according to the New York Times, sparking a cottage industry of “security programs” for schools and law enforcement that include fake blood, shooting teachers with pellet guns, and simulated gunshots.
Ninety-five percent of schools conducted active threat drills in 2015-16, according to the Department of Education. At least 42 states require emergency drills in schools, the Trace reported, with eight mandating active shooter drills, but those laws and requirements vary state to state. In Indiana, for example, schools must conduct a drill within the first 90 days of the school year. Minnesota school boards must have a “crisis management” policy that includes five lockdowns, five fire drills, and one tornado drill. New Jersey’s law mandates “security drills” in addition to fire drills once a month. Active shooter, bomb threat, lockdown, and non-fire evacuation drills must be held twice a year in the state. Following the Parkland school shooting, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission in 2019 said Florida schools should have four active-shooter drills per year.
Unannounced, hyper-realistic active shooter drills have been widely condemned by child trauma experts, teachers’ unions, and gun control advocacy organizations for being “harmful and misguided.” The graphic drills put teachers and students in “the most frightening situations,” Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, told the Guardian.
“Everywhere I travel, I hear from parents and educators about active shooter drills terrifying students, leaving them unable to concentrate in the classroom and unable to sleep at night,” Eskelsen García said, per Everytown for Gun Safety.
Greg Crane, founder of the ALICE Training Institute, the largest private provider of active shooter training in the U.S., told the Times the drills are not meant to instill fear. “The training is not designed to scare anyone,” he said. “I don’t have to make it real to get you to understand how the strategies work.”
The hyper-realistic drills, however, could trigger past trauma or anxiety in children. “It’s psychologically distressing for a young child to practice active shooters coming into your area,” Dr. Laurel Williams, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital, told Everytown. “It’s not clear to them that the drill is not real.”
Research into their effectiveness of active shooter drills is also lacking. Children experiencing the drills are still learning coping skills. “People tend to forget that if your child reacts to a drill in a way that’s tolerable, it doesn’t mean that others do,” Dr. Bruce D. Perry, founder of the ChildTrauma Academy, told the Times.
In February, Everytown, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association called on schools to end “extreme and unannounced” active shooter drills. The focus should be on tackling gun violence “before it ever gets to our schools,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told the Guardian.