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This undated file image provided by the City of Houston shows a scene from a video the city made to teach people how to react in the case of an active shooting situation using a short, three-word mantra: Run, hide, fight. Since Columbine in 1999, school districts across the country have been forced to devise their own response plans.Uncredited

The day after a shooter walked into a Florida high school and killed 17 people, Kitty McNally went to her classroom in New Jersey and reminded her teenage students of their plan.

First, they would lock the doors. Then, if necessary, they would barricade the door using bookcases and her desk. To escape, they could go out the window on to a small roof area. From there, they would drop on to the roof of the gym and hide in a spot far from windows.

"Every single teacher I know in the United States thinks about this all the time," said Ms. McNally, who teaches English at an all-boys school. "All I'm doing is what I'd want my daughter's teacher to do, which is to have a plan."

A generation of American children has grown up practising for what was once unthinkable as schools struggle to craft their own responses to the possible threat of a mass shooting. The attack in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday was the worst school shooting in the United States in five years, but the second incident this year alone in which someone died (in January, two people were killed and 18 injured at a high school in Kentucky).

In the absence of meaningful action by lawmakers, schools are attempting to chart their own path forward. That boils down to asking a series of questions that should not have to be asked: What is the best way to prepare children without scaring them? How many resources should be devoted to training and how many to equipment? Is it ever appropriate to arm school staff?

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Lockdown exercises, in which students huddle quietly in a corner of a locked, darkened classroom until they're told it is safe to resume their day, are now a fact of life in the United States. But there is little consensus about whether such drills – or other safety measures – are effective in a mass-shooting situation. The high school where Wednesday's shooting took place conducted lockdown drills, controlled entrances to the building and had a "school resource officer," an armed law-enforcement officer who worked at the school.

Meanwhile, the lockdown drill has become a childhood rite of passage in the United States, akin to the "duck and cover" exercises performed in schools during the Cold War in the event of a nuclear strike. While that eventuality did not materialize, today's students are preparing for a threat which, while remote, happens much too often.

According to a report prepared for Congress in 2016, an estimated 97 per cent of school districts in the country performed lockdown exercises – the same percentage as fire drills. (A number of school boards in Canada, including in Toronto, require lockdown drills.)

When Ken Trump, a long-time school-safety consultant, first entered the field three decades ago, the main challenges on school grounds fell into the categories of disruptive behaviour, fights and gang activity. In rare cases, he recalled, a student brought a knife to school and, in extremely rare cases, a gun.

That all changed in 1999 with the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, where two teenage students murdered 12 of their classmates and one teacher before taking their own lives. After Columbine, lockdown drills began to spread across the country. Thirteen years later, a gunman walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six staff. Lockdown drills became more widespread, as did other security measures such as door-control systems.

Now, superintendents and principals are getting input on security issues "in the same way they would have curriculum advisers come in," the school-safety consultant said. "The threats have become more complex," he added, while "the anxiety around not being able to stop school shooting is complex and frustrating and especially politicized."

Joe Schmidt, the senior director of security for the public-school district in Anchorage, Alaska, said that he spent a good deal of time on Thursday on the phone with worried parents. They wanted to know whether the area schools should have bulletproof glass, metal detectors or other fortifications to protect against the kind of shooting that took place in Florida.

"These are good, caring people," he said. "All would like to know for a fact that it won't happen to their child. I can't promise that." But he reassures them about the procedures in place in the school district, which oversees 100 schools and 50,000 students. There are "violent intruder" drills four times a year, buzzers at the doors to all the elementary schools, 50 school security staff and 13 school resource officers.

Recently, Anchorage became one of a number of school districts in the U.S. to move away from the conventional method of practising lockdowns and toward what is sometimes called a "multioption" approach. Rather than hunkering down in a locked classroom, the latter approach encourages teachers and students to evaluate all options – running away, hiding, even finding ways to fight back.

"If there's a fire, if there's a fight – any other incident, you move, you get away," said Matthew Holland, a third-grade teacher in Virginia. "For some reason, we've been training a whole generation of kids to sit passively and wait."

But some caution that the newer approach can lead to training that frightens or confuses children. In an Ohio school district, first-graders were introduced to the concept of barricading a door if a "bad guy" was in the school and encouraged to scream to distract him. And a middle-school principal in Alabama suggested that its students keep canned goods in their desks to launch at a potential intruder.

Some of these questions depend on the age of the students, said Jason Russell, chief security officer at Firestorm Solutions. While he would "absolutely not" recommend telling a first-grader to barricade a door or throw something at a shooter, the same might not be true of middle-schoolers or high-school students.

Mr. Russell was previously an agent with the U.S. Secret Service and founded his own school-security company after the Newtown shooting. He now works with educational institutions from preschool to university in 40 states. He recommends that schools install a kind of lockdown siren to warn of a dangerous situation. It has the "same effect as a fire alarm but for a different emergency," he said.

Faced with the prospect of repeated school shootings, some parents are resorting to increasingly desperate measures. Florida-based Guard Dog Security began selling bulletproof knapsacks after the Newtown shooting and now offers 12 different models. Yasir Sheikh, the company's president, declined to say how many backpacks it had sold, but said that demand surges after each mass shooting. On Thursday, the company said that it would donate half of the proceeds from such sales to the victims of the Parkland shooting.

Ms. McNally, the English teacher in New Jersey, remembers being "shocked to her core" when the Columbine attack occurred in 1999. When she learned about the Newtown shooting in 2012, she was giving an exam and began to weep in front of her students. She recalled being taken aback when her daughter was in kindergarten and explained that her class had practised hiding in the closet.

Now another school has become the site of a mass murder. It used to be that Ms. McNally's students were goofy or hyper during the school's regular lockdown drills. But in the past two years, "you could hear a pin drop," she said. And although it is just an exercise, Ms. McNally still feels a jolt of fear each time administrators rattle the doorknob to check that the room is locked.