Blog #271: Preparing Special Education Students for Active Shooter Drills

With the beginning of the new school year, there is a dark side to the beginning of the new school year that a lot of special educations students and parents dread: a type of school safety drill that is sadly becoming more and more common place: active shooter drills.

Active Shooter drills are drills that teach students and teachers about how to protect yourself and confront the ongoing threat that is going on. Yes, they are important, but there is a mental health aspect to the situation. Let’s face it, every parent’s worst nightmare is their child in danger, especially if the child is a special education student.

When we are neurodiverse/disabled, our minds are already fragile enough as it is and sometimes preparing for an active shooter drill does more harm than good.

But again, it is important to acknowledge the fact that we do need to prepare special education students for the unthinkable. But when it comes to an active shooter drill, there is a lot of obstacles that both the student and the teacher need to overcome:

Sensory Barriers: When it comes to our sensory issues, an active shooter drill can set off a lot of sensory overloads ranging from the moving of the furniture to barricade the door to the sounds of panic in other students.

Trouble Following Instructions: Let’s face it, following instructions is a nightmare for sensory friendly students. In a situation that involves a high level for survival, the instructions will come at you like a machine gun.

Trouble communicating: Much like following instructions, communicating with the teacher is a nightmare. When there is an active shooter, special education students will struggle to answer questions or commands.

Trouble staying quiet: This is a big one, but common-sense dictates that we stay quiet so that the intruder doesn’t come barging in. Sometimes, we can’t get our emotions out quietly and it’s next to impossible when we can’t help but get into a mode known as “flight or fight.”

A visual example of #4 is depicted in Disney’s Bambi (1942) involving a frightened pheasant who is in the same similar situation:

Now looking at the clip, you might ask yourself what you would do in that situation? The pheasant is just like a frightened special education student who can’t stay still because there is so much going through his or her mind.

But while we can’t change an active shooter drill for what it is, we can at least modify or take a different approach to the drill using a different sort of language. For example, instead of using:

A. Run

B. Hide

C. Fight


A. Avoid

B. Barricade

C. Confront

It also helps for special education students to perhaps even get involved the behind the scenes aspect of the drill. This can range from meeting with the people running the drill or perhaps the first time around, have the student watch from a secluded room of the school locking down and the police officers going around using their weapons.

By doing all of these approaches, you are building bridges between the student and law enforcement personnel. I’ve had the privilege of building bridges with the Seekonk Fire Department as an example of when I was dealing with fire drills. So, the chances of building bridges with law enforcement personnel are just as obtainable.

Now, if you want a refresher of what was said in this blog, be sure to check out Unicorn Children’s Foundation CEO Sharon Alexander discussing this topic on the CBS Affiliate in West Palm Beach:

Catch you all later!!