School lockdown drills pose particular challenges (and risks) for students with disabilities

Publication Date:

January 29, 2020

Topic:

Education

Lockdown drills are increasingly common in classrooms across the United States, with 95.7 percent of public schools reporting that they practiced a lockdown drill with their students during the 2017–2018 school year. Lockdown drills are used to prepare students, teachers, administrators, and other school staff for the unlikely event of an active shooter on, or near, the school campus. Participation in such drills may challenge the operation and well-being of any classroom, but it poses special challenges for students with disabilities.

I previously worked as a special education teacher for preschool students. In my school district, unannounced lockdown drills required teachers to lock their classroom doors, cover windows, turn off lights, and silently hide with their students. My class—18 preschool students, a paraprofessional, and myself—squeezed into the dark bathroom. This would be a difficult situation for typically developing preschool students, and all my students had documented disabilities under IDEA. During these drills, the paraprofessional and I would try to calm kids’ fears of the dark, of the disruption of our classroom routines—and of the banging on the classroom door by police officers, who would simulate a would-be classroom intruder attempting to get students to make noise while hiding.

Students with disabilities are largely unaccounted for in school lockdown plans. These plans generally outline what each classroom teacher is meant to do in such an event, but do not account for students who have difficulty following directions, maintaining silence, or coping with anxiety. Federal guidance instructs schools to account for how lockdown plans affect students with disabilities and to train staff in assisting students with disabilities during lockdowns, but there is no clear training guidance or means for ensuring compliance.

Special education teachers must take the initiative to ensure that their students are able to successfully participate in the drills. For every requirement of a lockdown drill, students must be explicitly taught the expected behaviors in a way that is developmentally appropriate and that accounts for students’ individual needs during a drill. For example, students have to practice sitting in close quarters without disturbing each other and communicating quietly if they need more space. Students who need more support during a lockdown may receive preferential seating near a teacher or another adult (such as a paraprofessional or other classroom aide) and might find comfort or mental focus in such things as squeeze balls and fidget toys. Teachers can also create goals for maintaining quiet during drills, celebrate when their classes reach those goals, and debrief and destress after drills.

With every lockdown drill, there is a risk that participating students will experience emotional trauma. Education stakeholders must determine whether preparation for an unlikely threat on or near campus is worth this potential trauma. And until a robust base of research delineates best practices for conducting lockdown drills with students with disabilities, we must proceed with caution, ensuring that special education teachers are appropriately trained to support the unique needs of their students during these drills. We don’t want students to fear school, or no longer view their schools and the world as safe, because of the safety measures we enact to protect them from potential violent crime.


Alexis Lessans was a research intern on Child Trends’ education research team. She previously taught elementary and secondary special education and is currently pursuing her EdD in special education at George Washington University.

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