Active Shooter Drills Can Nurture a Prevention Process That Needs to Include Strengths

06/15/2015 05:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

Recently, there was a school shooting prevention exercise at a school in Ash, North Carolina where 500 students were transported off site as if there was an evacuation. The school resource officer, Sgt. Adam Stanley, wisely said regarding the event, "There could be an inclement weather situation. We could have an active shooter." And he added that students need to feel comfortable in any situation so they can respond correctly and safely.

It's a good drill, don't get me wrong. Children need to know how to handle all sorts of hardships, but considering the news on school shootings every week, active shooter drills come up quite often. In fact, I served on a panel regarding library shooting drills - and I support developing resiliency in staff to deal with volatile, potentially tragic situations.

But there must be a balance. The fire drills of old were training in case a building malfunctioned, not a person. Nowadays, if the intent of our society is to brace for the worst possible human outcome, then I would have to ask what kind of society we want to live in. In addition, it is important to note that active shooter drills alone can do very little to help distressed students to choose safer safer behaviors.

I think prevention starts in classrooms, hallways, administrators' offices, counselor's offices, playing fields, locker rooms, sports fields, at home, and so forth. Everyone in schools has a part in prevention.

In that line of reasoning, if it takes an active shooter drill in a school to move the prevention process forward then that is great. However, we're not training for the worst, we're training the best (our students!). What I mean is that our students are tomorrow's leaders. And even the distressed students in a school, with the right supports in place, will make improvements in their lives.

What kind of supports? I advocate for an idea called strengths-based supports, which involves helping distressed students learn about their giftedness (rather than deficits). You can read more about them in a pilot study that I took part in proposing in Massachusetts. This bill needs backers.

Building and maintaining supports that involve student strengths take much than just wanting students to improve. It involves deep, systemic change. We live in a country that values making the correct responses to negative situations. I am all for that. Still, our responses to negative inputs need to get us towards our goal of what a society should be. This type of model society is a place where young people matriculate into becoming responsible adults. Moreover, those who are at risk of jeopardizing their life prospects should be provided more supports (not just punishments) so that they can make better choices.

The choice is ours too. As a nation, we do not need to continue embracing a Traditional Discipline paradigm where we make an effort to just punish children until they get better. Punishment has a place, but please remember that Federal Government has drawn a line in the sand saying that things like suspension and expulsion are systemically being used in ways that discriminate and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

So, if we don't support a paradigm of disciplining young people frequently, excessively, and so forth, how can we walk in a different direction? What are some alternatives that can be exercised regularly?

I have a suggestion. Imagine a student who was fighting at school and, in fact did the same thing weeks before. This is the student's second suspension and the duration is planned for three days. Before giving a thought towards alternative solutions to suspension and expulsion, what do you think? Is there another way?

What if the administrator gives that student a single-day suspension looped with two days back in school that include something really unpopular, a work detail after or before school so the student can contribute to their learning environment? But that is simply not enough. And I can hear some readers already voicing the idea that the learning environment would not be safe or even the idea, 'What if the student does not want to comply and in other words wants the three-day suspension?'

Fascinating question, and the answer is that students should not get to choose whether or not they go to school because schooling is a national mandate. Still, what do we do with those other two days? After meeting with parents/guardians, here is what to do.

Consider student strengths. Before their single-day suspension, give the student a half page writing assignment before they can leave that asks them to identify three of their strengths in life. A sensitive teacher's heart could help bring calm to the student in this case. Next, the student will return on day 2. When the student comes back, the first part of the day is the service learning I wrote about - it either needs to get completed or scheduled for after school.

Second, a strengths-based facilitator could talk with the student about the three strengths they designated the day before. What do they mean? What do they look like? What types of behaviors do those strengths avoid or tend to not work well with?

Next, a healthy discussion would walk the student through four domains of strengths that originated from Gallup, Inc. research in the Strengths-Based Leadership series. They also produced a student version, the Strengths-Explorer.

The student could even begin to guess what their top three strengths are from the list of 34 strengths. The strengths-based facilitator might want to find their own strengths using the Clifton Strengths Finder so they understand strengths better. And the student would take their Strengths-Explorer test. Perhaps it would be good to do it with them to be able to help out. That's enough for one of the two days.

On the next day - and it could be a few days later - the strengths-based facilitator would go through the strengths with the student and talk about what each strength looks like. Extra time could be spent on ones that are more important for each student. The Strengths Explorer system includes wonderful added reports that describe both (a) how to work with a student who has each strength, as well as (b) how that student can perform excellently using each of their strengths. After all, everyone has different strengths. After that discussion, the student has an assignment. They need to think about their actual strengths in the context of what got them in trouble in the first place.

When the student comes in for the third day, their assignment is to give a reporting of their thoughts on their strengths. It would be excellent if the student was able to do this even with a small group of peers. In some buildings, that will mean changing the climate and building more skills of resilience.

Restorative Practices are an excellent ways of achieving this shift in culture towards a school that values correcting students by including them in their learning environment during the correction process.

You might be asking about the connection between school climate, discipline, and active shooter drills. I admit that it is a stretch to think that every active shooter in a school was once committing behaviors that were causing disciplinary problems. That certainly may not be the case. However, every student that goes to school nowadays is exposed to other students that engage in disciplinary behaviors and earn punishments or alternatives.

Think of student discipline as being something that stresses the machinery of the school and causes extra wear and tear. If we can apply oil on these gears and smooth out the discipline more, perhaps also things like bullying might lessen in a building. And things like trust and student empathy might grow.

It is easy to see a sense of complexity from this short discussion that began with an active shooter drill and progressed towards ways to improve student discipline. Students who are distressed or traumatized might not have one origin of their pain, but instead might have several. Likewise, a school's toolkit for preventing tragedies should not consist of one activity, but of several.

And who is the strengths-based facilitator? She or he is the teacher, school resource officer, nurse, counselor, paraprofessional, administrator, or even active volunteer that is most passionate about helping distressed students find their strengths.


Dr. Jonathan Doll is a school safety advocate. He has a Kickstarter campaign going on during June/July 2015. Dr. Doll was the Keynote speaker at the conference, Building Resiliency in Lethal School Violence Prevention, at Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut on May 21, 2015. He authored the book, Ending School Shootings, which comes out in August 2015,