Last week’s tragedy in Las Vegas brings to mind the emotionally devastating history of shootings within our schools – ironically, the environment in which we all like to believe that our children are guarded and protected. Sadly, though, we now have a roster of events within our schools, ever since the deaths in Columbine High School in 1999, at Virginia Tech in 2007, and in Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, which show all too graphically why a comprehensive response initiative for such incidents is vital for every school.
Prior to Columbine, the common “lockdown” strategy was passive in nature, securing doors, closing blinds, turning off lights, huddling students and staff in the corners of classrooms, against walls or under desks, and hoping not to attract an intruder’s attention. Unfortunately, this strategy left students and staff highly vulnerable, and defenseless, once their locations were discovered.
Columbine led Greg Crane, an experienced law enforcement officer and security consultant, to rethink the entire school security strategy. He focused on the elementary school headed by his wife, and determined how best to protect its staff and students in event of an incident. He concluded, first, that the passive “lockdown” system most commonly in use was counter-productive. He thus designed a security strategy which was its exact opposite in several key respects – an active response model with a range of varied options. He later founded Response Options, which offered training in a new active model, and, in 2013, he established the ALICE Training Institute, to offer his program to schools on a more extensive basis.
ALICE is an acronym for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate”. It recognizes that most school shootings begin and end quickly. A 2015 FBI study found that 60% of such incidents conclude before the police are able to reach the school. Thus, an effective response needs to be in place immediately, to thwart the attack until law enforcement officials are able to intervene. ALICE states that “[s]pecifically, if contact is made … people of all ages are trained to the limit of their age- and physical-capability in counter strategies. We do not teach any fighting strategies. Counter strategies consist of the simple actions of Noise, Movement, Distance, and Distractions in order to make the intended targets much more difficult, and require a much higher skill set on behalf of the shooter. We also teach when appropriate and applicable, [that] by using overwhelming numbers potential victims can take back control of the situation.”
An incident earlier this year at West Liberty High School, in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, demonstrates the effectiveness of ALICE training. There, early in the school day, a shotgun-wielding student targeted students in the school. The students promptly utilized a variety of ALICE strategies, running in multiple directions (the ALICE strategy of “movement”), entering rooms and barricading doors (“enhanced lockdown”), and breaking out windows to evacuate. While this was taking place, staff members used their superiority in numbers to overwhelm the attacker, and to use their body weight to pin him to the floor. When police arrived at the school, five minutes after the incident had begun, the shooter was subdued and under control. The vital role of unarmed teachers is pivotal here, but not unique; the FBI notes that, during the past fifteen years, about 15% of shooter stoppages are credited to unarmed civilians.
ALICE describes its successful strategy as follows: “Counter strategies work. Proven. Period. And they work with no intent to harm the attacker. And they require no special skill set or tools to do them. Passive, static response must become a strategy of the past. Just like Women’s Self-Defense training, kids’ Stranger Danger training, and the expectation of airline passengers these days, citizens must understand they can survive the Active Shooter. ALICE makes training easy and comprehensive through the use of web-based training of concepts and strategies, and kinesthetic practice of skills. Readiness requires preparation. Preparation requires being trained. Trained requires practice.”
Certain school personnel can be certified as ALICE instructors, and they, in turn, can train staff members in ALICE practices. Internet instruction from ALICE is feasible as well, through interactive courses, and it can be blended with on-site training.
Some aspects of ALICE do provoke scrutiny and require flexibility, especially as to the ability of students to confront perpetrators. National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based consulting firm, urges a multi-faceted approach to school security. As it notes, other options warrant consideration as well:
“A few of the many examples include having trained, armed school resource officers (SROs) and school police department officers on campuses, employing trained and professional security staff, utilizing proactive security measures including physical security and violence prevention practices, training school staff and crisis teams on emergency response procedures, having evacuation and lockdown plans that are practiced regularly, training students on drills and common sense security measures such as not opening doors for strangers and to report strangers in the building and on campus, providing blueprints and floor plans to first responders and having them train using school facilities, improving prevention and support programs for students, and a host of many other measures.”
Robert Pezzella, the Director of Safety of the Worcester Public Schools, is a strong proponent of ALICE, and he has been instrumental in bringing the program and strategy to Worcester. As he has emphasized, “bringing ALICE to the Worcester Public Schools is the next step in empowering staff and students to make difficult but common sense decisions during times of crisis.”
Clearly, as staff members and students are educated in the principles and practices of ALICE, Worcester will have a new, multi-faceted response system in place in event of an incident within any of its schools. We hope it will never be needed, but it will be one vital ingredient in a comprehensive network of strategies designed to keep WPS students safe and secure throughout their years in Worcester schools.