Active Shooter Drill Backfires on Employer

| Zuckerman Spaeder Team

After a spate of horrific shootings at schools and businesses across the country, employers started conducting unannounced “active shooter” drills to train employees how to react if a murderous gunman shows up at their workplace. Unsurprisingly, some of these unannounced drills have gone awry.

In 2013, the Pine Eagle Elementary School in Halfway, Oregon, population 286, held an active shooter drill that was too much for its employees to bear. Now, Pine Eagle finds itself in the middle of a lawsuit in Oregon federal court, brought by former teacher Linda McLean.

The drill, as described by the court, appears to have been poorly conceived. The drill was set up by the school superintendent, principal, and a school board member who also owned a security company and wanted to sell the school an upgrade to its security system. They gave teachers no advance warning of the drill.

When the drill started, the school board member and the school safety officer entered the building. They wore masks and disguises and carried starter pistols. The school board member found McLean in her classroom, working alone. He pointed his pistol, loaded with blanks, at McLean, and pulled the trigger. McLean thought she was going to die.

Smoke—but no bullet—came out of the gun. The fake shooter told McLean, “You’re dead,” and ran away.

McLean walked toward the door and saw a student near her door (even though it was a teacher work day, some children were present). She grabbed the child and ran out of the building. Other teachers ran for the exits; two collided, and one was injured. Another teacher wet herself during the drill.

After the drill, the principal went around handing out “red dots” to signify the number of “shots” that each teacher had received.

McLean sued, claiming that she suffered from severe emotional distress and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the drill. She alleged federal civil rights violations, and also alleged state law claims.

The Oregon federal court granted summary judgment for the defendants on her federal civil rights claims, but allowed McLean to proceed to trial on her state law claims. First, it said that a reasonable jury could conclude that the defendants’ actions were outrageous, such that the defendants could be found liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Second, it said, a jury could determine that the defendants committed intentional assault by “making the situation appear realistic by simulating the conduct of two active shooters.” The court also said that McLean could seek punitive damages.

This isn’t the first claim of an active shooter drill gone wrong. Other plaintiffs have also claimed that surprise drills, or drills using firearms, have traumatized them. Employers should take note: rather than training employees to handle traumatic situations, these kinds of drills can cause trauma themselves—and trigger potential legal liability.

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