'They're frightening and emotional.' School lockdown drills may be causing more harm than good.

Lockdown drills have become commonplace in Australian schools at both primary and secondary levels. 

As an ex teacher, I understand why these drills exist and believe it is important to have safety procedures and practice runs of these procedures for a range of different situations.

But there is an issue, and it is a substantial one. Not every student or staff member within schools find these drills simple and procedural, or helpful.

There are some that are legitimately emotionally and psychologically impacted by them, and I have witnessed this first-hand.

Why Gabbie Stroud Broke Up With Teaching. Post continues below.

So, what exactly are lockdown drills?

Similar to fire drills, their intention is to prepare students and staff in a school with the safety protocols and routines of a specific emergency scenario.

Like fire drills, they are never announced, so the majority of staff and students are never 100 per cent sure whether it’s a practice or the real thing.

Lockdowns are usually used if there is an intruder or dangerous individual on the school ground, a threat being made against students or the school, an act of violence on the school grounds or an act of terrorism.

In most cases, the lockdown is announced via the P.A system with the words lockdown repeated, as well as a siren, every ten seconds.

This is done on a loop for about one minute, accompanied by an announcement that declares whether it is a drill and the communication of which specific threat it is.

Lockdown plans vary from institution to institution, but the Victorian education website says they can include the following procedures: directing children to seek shelter, pulling down blinds and switching off lights and electronics, remaining silent and encouraging students to do so, and advising staff and students to hide where they will avoid detection from outside the room.

Throughout my secondary school teaching career we conducted both of these mandatory types of drills. The fire drills usually ran quite smoothly, but lockdowns were different.

Although most of my teenage students followed instructions and were unaffected by them, some found the procedure more challenging for various reasons.

Some groups of students didn’t take the drill seriously and refused to take part. For them the safety procedure was ‘uncool’ and would never happen in reality, so why should they bother embarrassing themselves? 

Then there were the students who thought it was a game. To them it was funny because they also thought it was never going to really happen. They would make jokes about shooting the intruder and reference different weapons they would use, making sounds of guns firing while laughing.

For myself as a teacher, it was another group of students I found the hardest to witness go through the drill. Over the four lockdowns I experienced when I was teaching, around eight students found them frightening, anxiety-inducing and quite emotional.

Anxious child
Once the drill is over, school children can be affected emotionally and suffer from symptoms of anxiety. Image: Getty.

Some felt this way because they didn’t know whether it was a drill or actually happening, and this uncertainty was quite confronting for them.

The nature of lockdowns and fire drills - in order to make them as realistic as possible - is that the majority of school staff (myself included) are not informed of this either, so there is little to be done to comfort these students.

Others had backgrounds of family violence and issues with anxiety which meant this specific drill was in their mind very real, or at least it reminded them of past events which could be a trigger for them.

This emotional effect of lockdown drills isn’t uncommon. In America, a study of US schools found the drills caused a heightened level of anxiety in school children, who would subsequently display side effects like nail biting, crying and wetting their pants at the time of the drill and afterward. Many also had nightmares in the nights and weeks following.

These findings were similar to what I witnessed in some of the students who found the lockdowns confronting. There were times where some would cry, retreat within themselves and there was one who physically trembled while the lockdown drill was taking place.

While I understand the reasoning in making the drills realistic and believable, I also understand they can be potentially harmful for groups of students and staff that for whatever reason aren’t as equipped to deal with this as well as others. And I question whether it is fair for them to have to endure them.

Perhaps it's time to think of alternative options that can both protect our children from potential threats but also the potential psychological and emotional harm of the drill itself. 

Shona Hendley, ‘Mother of Cats, Goats and Humans’ is a freelance writer from Victoria. An ex secondary school teacher, Shona has a strong interest in education and is a passionate animal advocate. You can follow her on Instagram.

Do you agree with the need for a different system to prepare students for dangerous situations? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.