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Lawmakers Want to Give Parents a Heads-Up on Lockdown Drills

A school building
Glen Allen High School in Henrico County. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Lockdown drills have been required in Virginia public schools since 2013. The original legislation required two of these drills to be held each year. In 2016, legislation passed to increase the number of these drills. It mandated schools hold a lockdown drill twice within the first 20 days of the school year, and two additional lockdown drills during the remainder of the school year. 

But emerging evidence suggests that these drills can make kids feel less safe at school, and even increase symptoms of anxiety and depression. Some Virginia lawmakers are concerned that the drills may be doing more harm than good. A 2019 study found a lack of evidence to support continued use of “active shooter” drills, in part because school violence is rare. Last week, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) - two big teachers’ unions - released a white paper expressing growing concerns about the drills. 

In 2018, an active shooter drill at Short Pump Middle School in Henrico County felt a little too real. It left some students and parents panicked.

“I had a bunch of parents come to me and say, hey, we would at least like to know that they're going to happen,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D - Henrico), who’s also a teacher. 

He’s sponsoring legislation to require schools to notify parents at least 24-hours before the drills. The bill cleared a Senate committee Thursday and passed the House unanimously a few weeks ago.

“It doesn’t mean you’re ruining the integrity of the drill. It doesn’t mean you need to tell parents when the drill is exactly,” VanValkenburg said. 

What it does, VanValkenburg says, is give parents time to have a conversation with young kids and reduce family stress.

Another related bill sponsored by Del. Mark Keam (D - Fairfax) cleared a Senate committee Thursday, and has also passed the House on a unanimous vote. It would allow districts to exempt kindergarten students from the mandatory drills. Instead, it would give schools the option of either just training kindergarten teachers, or giving parents a five-day notice and an “opt out” option. 

“Both [VanValkenburg and Keam’s bills] will reduce the trauma of lockdown drills especially for our youngest students,” said Kathy Burcher with the Virginia Education Association in a tweet following the Senate committee votes Thursday.

Megan Pauly covers education and healthcare issues in the greater Richmond region. She was a 2020-21 reporting fellow with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network and a 2019-20 reporting fellow with the Education Writers Association.