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Ready, Stress, Go! Why Active Shooter Training Fails

The purpose of training is to inspire a sense of confidence and competence where knowledge and skill are otherwise wanting. Training has no practical value without that animating purpose. Training that leaves participants terrorized, anxious, and bruised fails the foundational ideal that makes it meaningful.

Recent research, buttressed by a resurgence of common sense, suggests that the graphic, dramatized, flashy active shooter training that has become a staple in educational settings harms rather than helps.

The centerpiece of fashionable active shooter training is reality-based, scenario-based, or stress inoculation training (for better or worse, the terms have come to be used interchangeably).

Law enforcement did not forge the concept of stress inoculation or the edgy terminology that grew out of it. Law enforcement co-opted the concept from psychology, which used it to treat psychological conditions and phobias. Distilled to essentials, the idea was to introduce a person to the environment (or element thereof) exciting the traumatic response in controlled, measured, and rationally sequenced doses in a systematic effort to build tolerance against the trauma.

For psychologists, the focus is inoculation. For law enforcement trainers, the focus is stress.

In practice, for law enforcement, the concept devolved into heaping stress onto trainees with little regard for anything else. Stress became an end in itself—and the more elaborate and wild the stress, the “cooler” and “more real” the training seems. “Ready, stress, go!” became the clarion call of the high-octane trainer. The problem with this approach is that it contradicts the premise of stress inoculation. Heaping stress on trainees does not magically prepare them. On the contrary, it deepens the tendency to inaction and pathology.

“Ready, stress, go!” became the clarion call of the high-octane trainer.

Proper training can and should empower. Good, active-minded trainers remind themselves regularly that stress is not an end in itself but rather a means to achieve efficacy in real world encounters. There is no clear evidence that trainees are empowered to act with any degree of efficacy in real-world encounters after being confronted with potboiler scenarios teeming with juiced-up “bad guys” clad in imposing tactical gear, cutting edge weaponry, and thundering grenades, bursting into classrooms like modern day Mongols, capping teachers in the backs of their heads and spraying fake blood around, peppering the mayhem with occasional witty quips. On the contrary, such theater dials up anxiety.

There is nothing “real” about reality-based training. Reality-based is much like the “based on a true story” moniker designed to pique TV show viewership. Melodramatic half re-enactments induce stress. They do not, in themselves, help to manage stress. The result is a deepened sense of anxiety and helplessness.

By contrast, just like fire drills and evacuation drills, lockdown drills can be very effective precisely because they focus on developing simple, fluid mechanics in prescribed contexts. The basic mechanics, reinforced by regular practice, support action against stressors that would otherwise overwhelm someone asked, in effect, to improvise his or her way through the chaos. Just as with fire drills or evacuation drills, lockdown drills should be conducted with a focus on calm, deliberate action. And they work.

Where employed, lockdowns have impeded killers from gaining access to victims. Training scenarios should do essentially the same thing. They should focus on developing the right mind-set and mechanics in tightly scripted—not improvised—exercises designed to train, not test, such that action becomes second nature. Fire drills would never have worked if, while practicing the mechanics of calm, orderly evacuation, administrators ran about during drills while wielding flame throwers and screaming “Fire! Fire! The fire is going to get you!” But active shooter training for civilians—including children—teems with that sort of drama.

Additionally, consider: is the focus on mitigation justified by the data? Mass murderers do not emerge out of nowhere—kids do not snap suddenly. They telegraph their troubled intentions, generally more than once and in more than one way.

Court officials knew of the two killers at Columbine High School long before the massacre because they had been arrested before. And the courts recognized them as troubled; part of their plea after their arrest involved court-ordered counseling. Police, too, knew the two students. Indeed, police had prepared a warrant to search the room of Eric Harris based on, among other things, information that he had made terrorist threats. The warrant was never executed.

School officials and teachers had detected warning signs as well. The killers had written and turned in school projects praising the killing apparatus of the Nazis. At least one teacher expressed concern about what the praise might mean but without substantive follow-up. Some parents knew of the killers’ aberrant behavior and complained to police.

There were, in short, many inflection points but no coordinated, integrated response to interrupt the path to violence.

Columbine was not a one-off. Recent reports authored by the United States Secret Service confirm the pattern (see Protecting America’s Schools and Averting Targeted School Violence). These mass attackers engage in alarming behavior in 100 percent of the cases surveyed in school settings. This is an extraordinary statistic, not least because it screams of the opportunity to prevent these events before they happen. So why is the focal point of training on mitigation after violence commences? The priorities are inverted. Prevention should be the primary, though not exclusive, focus of training and policy.  

Interrupting the path to violence begins with defining a simple, accessible mechanism for reporting information on threats—a mechanism understood and trusted by staff and students. Information, once forwarded, must be assessed. As a practical matter, assembling a threat assessment team to evaluate the nature, credibility, and gravity of the information is the critical step in preventing violence. This is no simple task. Thinking about violence, confronting those who threaten it and devising protocols to keep it from happening is not for everyone—psychologically or logistically. Pro forma threat assessment that serves as a mere cosmetic appendage to satisfy appearances fails every time. Gathering the right mix of personalities and talents takes time.

It is important that threat assessment teams avoid cloistering themselves within the educational setting.

Furthermore, it is important that threat assessment teams avoid cloistering themselves within the educational setting, as so often happens. Coordination is crucial. Lack of coordination results in missed opportunities, as Columbine and many other incidents illustrates. Effective threat assessment teams establish liaisons with counterparts in other agencies—law enforcement, district attorneys, family courts, and departments of mental health and youth services. Many agencies with unique powers and mandates coordinating effort to address the same threat afford a range of possibilities unavailable to a single organization. The value of an integrated approach cannot be overestimated.  

Horror-film style, gory, simunition-riddled, semi-improvised theater that masquerades as training has provably failed. It has not reduced the number of active shooter incidents year over year. It has not diminished the number of deaths. It has not produced a civilian populace prepared to confront a killer. On the contrary, as argued, the evidence demonstrates that it has produced a civilian populace more anxiety-ridden than ever after the training. If training in school settings is to be mandated and supported by government funding, perhaps the dollars should go to protocols and practices that do not make the problem worse.  


Lieutenant Daniel Modell (ret.) served for 20 years in the New York City Police Department. He secured a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from New York University and a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin. He is author of The Psychology of the Active Killer and The Warrior’s Manifesto: Ideals for Those Who Protect and Defend. Daniel is also co-chief executive of Ares Tactical and Emergency Management Solutions. He may be contacted at: [email protected].

Sergeant Russell Jung (ret.) served for more than 20 years in the New York City Police Department. Prior to his career in law enforcement, he served in the United States Army. He has an advanced degree in Homeland Security Studies and is author of State Bureaucracy: Entropic Organization in the Age of 4th Generation Warfare. Russell is also co-chief executive of Ares Tactical and Emergency Management Solutions. He may be contacted at: [email protected].