Local school districts rethink active shooter drill plans under new state law

Photo courtesy of Joel Nuñez / Officers attended a multi-agency training in Presidio in 2019 to learn tactics, protocols, emergency medical care and more. While they will still carry out active shooter drills in the halls of Presidio schools, beginning this year, students and staff won’t be present while they happen.

MARFA, PRESIDIO – Local school districts are reconsidering the way they prepare for active shooter incidents after Texas passed new legislation that regulates the way active shooter drills can be carried out. In Presidio, high intensity drills involving the firing of blank simulation rounds will fall by the wayside, as new policies are rolling out to keep kids safe without potentially compromising their mental health.

Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 168 by local state Sen. César Blanco into law this month, pushing the legislation into effect immediately. “Active shooter drills, intended to prepare students and teachers for rare worst-case scenarios, can have harmful mental health consequences,” said Blanco upon the bill’s passage. “Our schools need to be a safe place for our children to learn and that includes protecting their mental health and development.”

Studies by Everytown for Gun Safety and Georgia Tech University back up Blanco’s claims, with evidence suggesting active shooter drills increase depression, stress, anxiety and physiological health problems among students, parents and teachers.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Presidio ISD hosted active shooter drills for Lucy Rede Franco Middle School and Presidio High School at least once a semester, with authorities firing simulation rounds (known as blanks) in the school, while teachers, students and administration carried out procedures that could save lives if a real shooter were to arrive on campus.

While the drills help educators and students decide how to react in an emergency situation, a 2019 drill at Presidio schools led to a confusing scene when Border Patrol agents arrived on campus believing a real active shooter incident was underway.

The new legislation plans to eliminate risks like this by requiring districts to give notice that a drill will happen to all “first responder organizations.” It also mandates that the district create “a safe zone” around the school, to keep out actual firearms, ammunition and other weapons carried by police, school resource officers and any other person authorized by the district to carry those items on school grounds.

Districts will also be required to provide adequate notice to students, parents and staff on when the active shooter drill would occur, what the content, form and tone of the exercise is, and whether it will include “a live simulation that mimics or appears to be an actual shooting incident.” Schools must also ensure the activity is “age appropriate” and “designed to support the well-being of students who participate in the exercise before, during, and after the exercise is conducted.”

Superintendent Ray Vasquez did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how Presidio ISD plans to adjust its active shooter drills to comply with the state’s new legislation. In 2019, he told The Big Bend Sentinel, “With the time we live in, with all the recent shootings, we’d rather be safe than sorry. We’ve got to be prepared for whatever.” At the time, he acknowledged that while other districts opt for less realistic drills, he believed Presidio schools could best “learn from the opportunity and practice.”

Joel Nuñez, the Presidio Independent School District police chief, said policies are changing for PISD. Starting this year, police officers will hold an active shooter training when staff and students are not on campus. Staff will then receive training at the beginning of the year during an annual emergency management training session.

When school is back in session, staff and students will receive written instructions on what to do in case of an active shooter, Nuñez said, and Presidio ISD police will post step-by-step instructions in every classroom.

In Marfa, the district has never carried out an active shooter drill, but it has offered training and presentations in the past. This year, the school plans to have a drill with teachers this August, before students return for the school session.

While districts can carry out active shooter drills if they meet the legislative criteria, Aguero said he has mixed feelings about trying it out. “It is a very needed and useful tool, but it can also add unneeded stress and fears. That’s my biggest problem with it. I totally understand being prepared for it and doing it, but we don’t know the state of every child – we try to – but why put them in an unneeded situation?”

Aguero said that for now, the district is against drills with students. Instead, they are training teachers on mental health issues, so they can be on the lookout for signs of mental health struggles in their students and offer strategies to help them.

Lockdown, lockout, shelter-in-place and evacuation drills are still mandated at Texas public schools to occur once per semester, and PISD and MISD will continue holding those drills.

“It’s not required that we do the active shooter drill, but they [students] have to understand lockdown and shelter in place,” Aguero said. “But when you’re doing the active shooter drill, it really is that they [officers] are pretending to be in the building and shooting blanks. We don’t want to put students in that situation.”