New law allows Minnesota students to opt out of shooter drills

Bottles of cleaning supplies it in the window of a school bus.
Starting this school year, Minnesota teachers and families can expect to see changes in the way schools prepare for the possibility that an armed intruder enters their building.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Starting this school year, Minnesota teachers and families can expect to see changes in the way schools prepare for the possibility that an armed intruder enters their building.

Active shooter simulations — where school staff, police officers and others act out an attack at a school by a person with a gun using effects such as fake gunshots or blood — can’t take place on a day when more than half of students are expected to be present at school. And students won’t be required to participate, under a law that takes effect Tuesday.

Families will have to be notified at least 24 hours before a school puts on an active shooter drill, which wouldn’t include those elements made to make it feel real. Those conducting the drill will also have to announce that the drill is not a real intruder situation. Students will be allowed to opt out of the drills, and schools will be required to provide time for classes to debrief and offer mental health support. 

“We’ve heard stories of students that when they go into the drill, they don’t know if it’s real or if it’s fake,” the law’s author, Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, said. “It’s traumatizing children. It is scaring children and that is not the environment where a child is going to learn how to add and to read.”

A Black woman smile for a posed photo
Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Maye Quade said the law was shaped by students and teachers. New Jersey and Washington state have enacted similar measures. The drills in Minnesota will also have to be accessible, developmentally and age appropriate, culturally aware, trauma-informed and inclusive of student accommodations.

“Ideally, this is a piece of legislation that I’ll be able to repeal someday because we won’t need it anymore. But right now, until we address the broader issue of gun violence, we’ll continue to have active shooter drills and we at least need some guardrails, definitions and parameters around what those are,” she said.

Schools will also have to provide evidence-based violence prevention training to students in middle and high school. The state departments of health and public safety next year will issue resources schools can use for that training and update the resources every two years. From there, school districts could tweak the training based on local input.

The training must cover warning signs that a person might pose a threat to himself or others. And it has to cover how to take threats seriously and ask for help.

The proposal had bipartisan backing at the Capitol. Supporters said it would help prepare students and teachers for an armed intruder incident while minimizing trauma for those who participate in drills and simulations.

“Simulating a situation like that for students, I don’t think is really productive,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht. “That kind of a drill is very traumatic for students and adults.”

Jillian Peterson speaks in front of a monitor projecting a presentation.
Researcher Jillian Peterson speaks about non-verbal communication as a form of crisis intervention on July 23, during a training at Education Minnesota.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

Jillian Peterson is a professor of criminal justice at Hamline University who has studied the life histories of mass shooters. That work helped her write a book about preventing mass shootings.

Peterson said that drills and simulations vary by district and by state, and research hasn’t clearly shown that they help students respond to an attack.

“Post-Columbine, so post-1999, we’ve been in this real kind of ‘Let’s harden our schools,’ and bulletproof doors and active shooter drills and simulations,” Peterson said. “And now, I think there’s this recognition that that is not working. It didn’t work. And in fact, in some ways, could be making matters worse.”

While she wasn’t involved in writing or passing the legislation, Peterson said the law takes the right approach.

“We need to be seeing kids and noticing kids in crisis, and having resources available for them,” Peterson said. “We want warm, welcoming environments where kids trust adults and will report when they’re concerned about somebody. And I think Minnesota has actually been at kind of the front end of making some of these changes, and recognizing that school safety and mental wellness are kind of one in the same.”

The state doesn’t mandate that schools conduct active shooter drills. But it does require five lockdown drills, five fire drills and a tornado drill each school year. State guidance says the lockdown drills need to prepare teachers to clear hallways and secure their classrooms in case of an emergency.

Rick Kaufman: Bloomington Public Schools emergency management coordinator.
Rick Kaufman, Bloomington Public Schools emergency management coordinator, was working in the Columbine High School district in 1999.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Rick Kaufman, executive director of community relations and emergency management for Bloomington schools, said his district has taken similar steps in recent years to let families know ahead of time when a drill is planned and walk parents through school safety protocols each semester. Parents and students have appreciated the heads up, he said.

“We want to create learning,” Kaufman said. “We don’t want to [put] a barrier in by that kind of surprise, shock and awe that these unannounced drills. There’s no learning in there.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis or thinking about suicide, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.