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Active-Shooter Security Drills Are 'Ineffective,' Researchers Find

Most shooters, like the teen in the Santa Clarita high school shooting, are insiders

A group of people walking in a dark hallway.

​Employers may think that security drills can help save lives in the event of a mass shooting—like the one that happened Nov. 14 at a California high school—but two researchers argue that such measures aren't much help because most school and workplace shooters are insiders "well-rehearsed in the security procedures."

The 16-year-old suspected of fatally shooting two students and wounding three others at a Santa Clarita, Calif., high school was a student at the school. He shot himself after assaulting the others and later died. 

"As imperfect as [shooter] profiles are, we can use them to assess our current responses to mass shootings," wrote Jillian Peterson and James Densley in their research, which was published this month. "For example, school shooters are nearly always students of the school—so building design strategies and active shooter drills are ineffective because the shooter is an insider, well-rehearsed in the security procedures. Same goes for workplace shooters who typically are employees."

Peterson is an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in Minnesota. Densley is a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. The pair received a federal grant from the National Institute of Justice, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, to do the research, then created a mass-shooter database that goes back more than half a century.

The most common site for a mass shooting since 1966 is the workplace, they found, such as the one that occurred in May, when a Virginia Beach, Va., city employee killed 12 people at a municipal building.

In workplace shootings, the researchers noted, the great majority of the perpetrators are current or former employees who have access to the buildings, know how to move around them quickly and are familiar with security drills. The researchers suggest that, rather than relying on drills, school boards and employers increase investment in school- or employment-based mental health services and in training on crisis intervention and grief management.

"Eighty percent of perpetrators are in crisis prior to the shooting," the researchers wrote.

"Age restrictions … waiting periods, and background checks for all firearm sales may especially help prevent college shootings, where the majority of perpetrators are in a known crisis and legally purchase guns, even with a history of psychiatric hospitalization and a criminal record," they wrote.

Multiple Security Elements

Jack R. Plaxe is founder and managing director of Security Consulting Alliance LLC in Louisville, Ky. He acknowledged that "insider threats are some of the most difficult to manage" but noted that access badges and locks are only a small part of an effective security program.

"A program should have a variety of elements that work together," he said, "such as security and emergency action plans, security hardware and technology, security guards and staffing, policies and procedures, training, drills, and exercises."

A security program also should train employees to recognize signs that a worker may be thinking about violence, Plaxe added.

"It is essential that trained employees recognize this behavior and report it so that steps can be taken to intervene and mitigate the threat," he said. "I contend that if an employee showing signs of potential violence is allowed to continue down this path, the company has failed in its workplace-violence-prevention efforts."

Martha Boyd is a shareholder with law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, in Nashville, Tenn. She said the Virginia Beach shooting is a classic example of how access badges and locks aren't enough to deter an "insider" bent on violence.

"But the lessons we can take from the Virginia Beach shooting are that when employees know how to react to a shooting, lives are saved," she said. "Several employees in the municipal building on the day of that shooting ran out of the building to avoid the gunman, which is exactly what they should have done. Others barricaded themselves in a room—again, exactly what they should have done since they were unable to escape. No motive has been discovered for that shooting, and, while the shooter had some disciplinary issues, there did not appear to be any predictive behaviors like we've seen in other mass shootings."

She also acknowledged that training workers or students on how to react to a shooting is scary for them.

"It should be, because it's training for a potentially horrible scenario," she said. "It is certainly appropriate to consider whether the benefit of training is outweighed by the psychological impact, [but] I would think it depends on the age of the kids, psychological issues and other factors. It isn't as if the kids aren't hearing about it; they are—through parents, older siblings and the 24-hour news cycle. So what message are we sending when we don't offer them training? That there's nothing they can do, that they have no ability to affect an outcome, that they're sitting ducks."

For a dozen years, Thomas Mandler sat on the board of education for two Illinois high schools. He said schools should absolutely train students on how to respond to a shooting, even if such drills might be traumatizing for children.

Workers and students "still need to be prepared to act in an emergency," said Mandler, a partner with law firm Akerman LLP in Chicago. "Even if a former student [or worker] knows the drills, the damage done would be more limited if others are in safe places."

There could also be legal implications if an employer or school doesn't "protect against known threats," he said.