Teachers across the country will soon be able to train for an active shooter on school grounds using a computer simulation that includes realistic details like gunfire, shattered glass and the screams of children.
This vivid and realistic digital simulation was created by the federal government. It was modeled after a real school and includes 20 classrooms, a library, a cafeteria and a gymnasium with blue-padded walls.
To depict the chaos of a school shooting, the software developers studied audio dispatches from the mass killings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
“It is a very traumatic, very panicky situation,” said John Verrico, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which funded the $5.6 million program. “We tried to make the environment just that disturbing.”
Since the attack on Columbine High School in 1999, mitigating the damage of on-campus shootings has been an increasingly urgent priority. More than two-thirds of public schools nationwide practiced their response to a shooting in the 2013-14 academic year, according to the Department of Education; 10 years earlier, fewer than half of schools did so.
Lockdown drills are now commonplace, and if safely escaping is not possible, teachers are advised to protect students by shutting off the lights, barricading doors and silencing cellphones.
School districts may choose to supplement those drills by using the simulation to train staff members to make decisions under pressure. In a demonstration video, students in the simulation huddle in a corner awaiting orders from the teacher, who must select one of seven commands, including “Get out through a window,” “Find a place to hide!” or “Follow me!”
Participants can play as students, teachers and other school employees, or law enforcement. And, in an option reminiscent of first-person shooter video games, they can also play the person with a gun, either as an adult or as a child.
That might seem like an unusual choice, but Verrico said it was more realistic and effective for a real person to decide the unpredictable actions of an active shooter, rather than leave that to the software.
Schools will most likely have an instructor or member of law enforcement control the suspect, he said.
The simulation is set to be released in the spring and will be provided free to any school that passes a verification process. It is part of a program known as EDGE, for Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment, that was developed in a partnership between the science and technology division of the Department of Homeland Security and the Army Research Laboratory.
Computer simulations are commonly used by the military, by pilots learning to fly a plane and by doctors practicing surgical procedures, said Shawn Green, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has researched how playing a video game affects the learning process.
If a simulation accurately reproduces an environment, Green said, it can help solve a challenge that is fundamental in education: Knowledge gained in one context does not always transfer well into another.
The simulation uses the same software engine that powers blockbuster video game series like “BioShock,” “Gears of War,” “Mass Effect” and “Splinter Cell.” But more important than graphical fidelity is how the experience makes participants feel.
“The bigger concern is whether it’s possible to actually mimic the stressors of a live situation,” Green said, explaining that if people recognize they are not truly in harm’s way, their heart rates may not increase. “Our decision-making processes are inherently affected by things like physiological arousal.”
This is the second version of the program. A brick-by-brick re-creation of a 26-story hotel in Sacramento was made available to first-responder agencies in June, months before dozens were killed by a gunman shooting through the windows of a Las Vegas hotel. Over 500 organizations have practiced coordinating their tactics in the digital hotel, where they may neutralize an active shooter, defuse a hostage situation or battle a fire started by a Molotov cocktail.
It was important to adapt that software for teachers so it would be instructive rather than intimidating, said Amanda Klinger, the director of operations for the Educator’s School Safety Network, a nonprofit consulting group that has a contract to create lesson plans for it.
“Scaring the daylights out of people with blood and gore and trauma doesn’t empower people,” Klinger said.
No teachers have yet used the simulation, and for many it may be their first experience with controls similar to a computer game. Tutorials are designed to prevent basic mistakes like running into walls.
Not everyone in the school security field thinks the simulation is a good idea.
“I would much rather see school staff trying to practice a lockdown between class changes than sitting in front of a computer,”* said Ken Trump, a school security consultant.
He added, “I think we’re just sort of grasping for solutions that have a wow impact to them, but they are bypassing the fundamentals.”
In-person planning sessions and tabletop exercises are more valuable, Trump said, because each school has unique challenges based on its student population and physical layout. Staffwide training is a way to glean the perspectives of secretaries and custodians, who may not be trained on the simulation.
But the Army Research Laboratory says an advantage of the simulation is that scenarios can be run repeatedly, avoiding the cost and disruption of real-life drills. Ultimately, the goal of all virtual training is to produce flexible behavior, said Green, the psychology professor.
“What we don’t want people to do is to basically develop one strategy of doing these five things in an exact order,” he said. “If that gets broken, they’re often worse off than if they haven’t learned anything at all.”