by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Barricading a door in ALICE training
What would you do if a shooter was on campus? Would you lock your door, huddle in a corner with students, try to keep them calm, and wait to be rescued?
Would you try to evacuate students?
Would you fight back?
In a worst-case scenario, teachers usually lock their classrooms, hide with students and wait for police. It doesn’t always work. It didn’t work in Columbine 15 years ago or in Sandy Hook Elementary one year ago.
Some educators are learning how to be proactive to increase the odds that students and staff will survive a shooting. They are learning skills they hope they will never have to use, such as how to build barricades, evacuate students during a rampage, and even distract or disarm a shooter with the help of students as a last resort.
Such training is taking place in rural Modoc County, where a year ago a teen threatened to shoot “a classroom of kids” along with faculty members at the local high school. He was apprehended by police, who caught him holding a knife on his parents and attempting to load a rifle. Now, in an empty schoolhouse in the town of Likely, CTA members, administrators and law enforcement agents practice survival skills.
“You may have adrenaline rushing and get caught up in the moment. If you get scared, yell ‘safety, safety, safety.’ If someone screams those three words, you must stop what you are doing immediately.”
After hearing these instructions, groups of teachers and other training participants don safety masks and walk into empty classrooms. One member of each group has a two-way radio; soon a voice resonates over the airwaves that the scenario is about to begin.
The participants in Group 3 become quiet and dim the lights. They huddle in a corner quietly. Outside, a male screams, “Open up. I know you’re in there.” The door bursts open and he begins shooting. After firing numerous shots, he departs and visits the next classroom.
“Hello, hello, I know you’re in there,” he yells tauntingly, and begins shooting all over again.
Fortunately, this eerily realistic scenario with plastic pellets is only a drill. But it’s still terrifying.
“How many of you were shot?” asks instructor Al Bahn of the ALICE Training Institute when participants regroup. Several hands go up from individuals, many of whom are still smarting from the pellets.
“Now let’s practice some skills that could bring the death toll down,” says Bahn. “In a real incident, I can’t guarantee that everyone would survive. But I’m giving you a tool box of tactics and information about how to select the best tactic at the right moment.”
CTA members and administrators attending the training say they plan on teaching their colleagues these tactics and strategies upon their return.
“You need to be prepared for these situations to keep kids safe,” says Tulelake Basin Teachers Association (TBTA) member Tricia Brown. “Things have happened that have changed the way we think. We need to be prepared for these situations and practice what to do.”
A nationwide shift in thinking
ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. The organization has offered trainings in California school districts in Los Angeles, Vallejo, Pittsburg, Antioch, Sacramento, Merced, Woodside and elsewhere throughout the nation.
The training reflects the new recommendations from the U.S. Department of Education for keeping students safe, known as “Run, Hide, Fight.” The new guidelines ask educators to take a more assertive role in trying to survive the unlikely event of a shooter on campus, such as throwing chairs and staplers at an intruder or turning a fire extinguisher on an attacker.
Not everyone agrees with the shift in protocol, and some teachers have anonymously complained in the media that they should not be expected to play Rambo. The new strategies have never been tested, but some who have taken the ALICE training say they feel better having been taught about things they could do.
“I personally thought it was a good thing, because if anything ever really happened, I’d have something to fall back upon,” says Robert Shaljean, a math teacher at Buhach Colony High School in Atwater who took the training a year ago and recently underwent a refresher course.
“Most teachers thought it was beneficial,” says the Merced Union High School District Teachers Association member. “Our school has an extremely detailed safety plan required by law, but classroom teachers don’t have a clue what to do.”
“I’m in favor of this type of training,” says Linda Chan, a math teacher at Mt. San Antonio College and the chair of CTA’s Safety Committee. “We need as much training as possible so we can make quick, intelligent decisions instead of panicking. Even with all that training, you just don’t know what will happen. You can’t always predict what is going to happen, but you should certainly be prepared for any situation. My personal thoughts are train, train, train.”
The Mt. San Antonio College Faculty Association member had plenty of training as a former firefighter. She is especially concerned about college safety, since it’s a completely open environment.
Keith Brown, vice-chair of CTA’s Safety Committee, also sees the shift in a positive light.
“I agree that we need to look at different approaches and be proactive in dealing with any active violence on our school campuses including gun violence,” says the Bret Harte Middle School English teacher and Oakland Education Association member. “I feel that one of our responsibilities as teachers is to ensure the safety of all students. Most of our members don’t believe in arming teachers and don’t want that responsibility. But most of the teachers I know — and members of CTA’s Safety Committee — are open to looking at different approaches in dealing with a violent situation on campus.”
While there may be a perception that school violence has gone up, in reality it has gone down, and schools are among the safest places for children to be, adds Brown, whose students live in a high-crime neighborhood. And while he approves of training teachers to be proactive to counter an armed intruder, he believes the real solution to school violence lies in addressing the social and emotional needs of students and offering counseling services, anti-bullying programs and a restorative justice approach to create a safe, nurturing environment on campus.
However, he acknowledges, these things may not always prevent violence.
Ways of being proactive
“We are mostly telling people they have options,” says Marianne Alvarez of the ALICE Training Institute. “We tell children to fight and run for their lives if there is ‘stranger danger,’ so why tell them to sit in the corner if there’s danger in their school? Statistically, when everybody gets in a corner, it makes one big easy target for a shooter to hit.”
ALICE training calls for educators to use whatever tactical advantage they have available — especially outnumbering the assailants. Teachers and students can make barricades out of desks, chairs and heavy objects, making it difficult for a shooter to enter. Older students can be taught to throw chairs, desks, books and heavy objects to distract a shooter, and move constantly, interfering with the intruder’s ability to shoot accurately. Fire extinguishers can be sprayed, thrown or used to hit someone. Younger children can be taught to run around and provide a distraction so others can escape. In the Columbine library, where 10 were killed and 12 were injured, it was 56 against two — and the two won. That shouldn’t happen, says Alvarez.
Under the “alert” part of ALICE, schools are urged not just to announce a lockdown, but to announce over the PA system that a shooter is on campus, what he looks like and where he’s located, so that teachers know they can evacuate students in areas where the attack isn’t happening. Students can be taught to leave the building, scatter and rendezvous at a safe location previously agreed upon.
As for fighting back — that is a personal decision, says Alvarez.
“If you have 25 students in class throwing textbooks or chairs and someone with a fire extinguisher on the side of the door ready to spray, you can save lives,” says Alvarez. “In the beginning, it wasn’t easy to convince people about this. They would say, ‘I’m not trained to do anything but teach.’ Unfortunately, we need to make this type of training as mainstream as fire drills. When’s the last time a child died in a fire? It was 1958. When is the last time a child died due to violence in school? It was probably last week.”
Testing out the new strategies
CTA members and other workshop participants are told to return to their classrooms and try again. This time, in multiple scenarios, they practice skills learned from the ALICE training. In Group 3, they build a barricade with a participant’s belt, but it snaps easily. (Many get shot.) They hear an armed intruder in another part of the school and decide to evacuate by climbing out a window and also fleeing out the door. (One person is shot.)
Next, it’s the “last resort” scenario when nothing else works and it’s time to fight back. Participants are given rubber balls to throw (in lieu of books, staplers, chairs and other heavy objects during a real-life situation) to distract the shooter while he is rushed by individuals stationed on either side of the door.
Participants actually disarm ALICE trainer Al Bahn when he pushes open the door. It happens so quickly, Bahn doesn’t have time to fire one shot.
Michael Kehoe, a school counselor and TBTA member who ends up with the pellet gun during the melee, says he feels empowered.
“But I think about what this would have been like if we’d had a classroom full of children,” he muses. “How would we respond? I’m not sure, but this has really raised my consciousness.”
“The scenarios really brought this to life,” says school nurse Jody Johnson, Plumas County Teachers Association. “It got my adrenaline going. Nothing helps people learn something better than practicing. As educators, we know this.”
Paula Silva, a member of the Big Valley Teachers Association, says she worries about school violence, but feels she now has options in the unlikely event that a shooter enters her campus.
“We live in a remote area, and we don’t always get a timely response from law enforcement,” says Silva. “But this gave us a good sense of the things we can do. I think it’s worth it to fight, as opposed to just sitting in a corner waiting for something to happen.”
“We’re in the business of educating children,” says Heather Wright, TBTA. “I guess you could say after this training that the business of education just got a little broader.”
For more information on the ALICE Training Institute, visit www.alicetraining.com.
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