What should teachers and students do when someone enters a school with a loaded weapon and the intent to do harm?
Lock the doors, turn out the lights and cower in the classroom? Or attempt to evacuate and, as a last resort, disrupt or confuse the shooter by throwing things or even grabbing the shooter's leg, perhaps sacrificing themselves, while the rest try to flee?
The Anchorage School District has decided to abandon the passive, lockdown defense in favor of a far more active approach — called "ALICE" — and will be training teachers and students, from kindergarten to 12th grade, in those methods this school year.
"We're not teaching people how to fight. We're teaching people how to survive when there's no other options," said Mark Davis, the school district's director of security and safety.
About 3,7000 districts nationwide have adopted the methods taught by the ALICE Training Institute based in Ohio. A Texas law enforcement officer developed the training program after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, when two teenagers shot and killed 12 of their classmates and one teacher, wounding many others.
The training bucks the traditional, lockdown-only approach, and has drawn praise for empowering people to make decisions in a shooter situation, as well as criticism for training young schoolchildren to attack armed intruders.
Davis said ALICE follows federal recommendations and provides school staff and students with tools to use if a shooter enters their classrooms. Anchorage is about the 11th school district in Alaska to adopt ALICE, which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate. ASD announced the new protocol last week.
In the past, the school district instructed teachers to lock their doors and turn off the lights after they heard a lockdown directive. Everyone sheltered in place and waited. It was the long-accepted procedure by many districts across the country, an effort to minimize chaos. But Davis, a retired U.S. Army colonel, said it's not enough when an active shooter enters a school. People must move.
"Anything is better than being passive because you already know why he's there and what his purpose is," Davis said, referring to a gunman. "So why make it easy on a person?"
Over the next several months, Anchorage's teachers and staff will go through online training and complete scenarios as part of the ALICE program. Then they will teach students what to do, Davis said. It will cost the school district $56,000 this year for online training and instructor certification, plus an additional $25,000 in each of the next two years for training renewal, said Heidi Embley, school district spokesperson.
"But we believe this is a small cost needed in order to help protect students and staff," she said.
How it works
On Thursday, Davis sat in a meeting room at the ASD Education Center with printouts of studies and slides about active shooter incidents, federal recommendations, emergency operation plans and statistics on school shootings. He had a book with a cover depicting a child as an ant in school clothes, meant to teach young students about ALICE entitled, "I'm not Scared … I'm Prepared!"
Several of Davis's slides featured the floor plans of Columbine High School, the Virginia Tech campus and Sandy Hook Elementary School. He described where the shooters entered and where they went. Another slide listed how long the shootings lasted — all under nine minutes.
"Seconds really do matter," Davis said. "This is really in the hands of the people in the building when it happens."
Under ALICE, when an armed intruder enters the school building, staff will no longer simply announce a lockdown. Instead, they will announce — preferably over the intercom —there is an active shooter and describe what the person looks like and in what direction he or she is headed, so classes far enough away can opt to evacuate. Other classes can opt to go into lockdown, Davis said.
"When you go into lockdown, it shouldn't be a passive thing," he said. "You close and lock the door and then you find anything you possibly can to barricade the entry."
The new procedure hinges on communication. Students, teachers and staff are supposed to share the shooter's location through text message, by phone call, over the intercom and using handheld radios. People who can evacuate are advised to leave the school through doors or through windows and move outside to predesignated locations.
As a last resort, those stuck in classrooms should prepare to attack the shooter — by far the most controversial part of ALICE. Davis said students will be trained to "counter" the shooter in different ways, depending on their grade level.
Young students could scream, run and throw things at the shooter's face — anything but sitting in the corner, waiting to be shot. Older students and adults could swarm the shooter, grabbing his or her arms and legs. The methods are supposed to disorient the shooter, opening up the opportunity for escape, Davis said.
"I don't care how good of a shot you are, you could be the best trained person in the world, but when somebody's throwing something in your face, you're not going to be able to shoot straight," he said. "It's just a fact."
Davis said ALICE training will differ by grade level. For young students, there is an illustrated children's book, which describes the training as "The Sheep, The Shepherd, and the Wolf Drill." (The sheep represents the students, the shepherd is the teacher and the wolf is a "dangerous someone," it says). The story says the students must stay out of the wolf's way. In lockdown, it says the students should look for something that's easy to throw.
"If the wolf gets into our classroom, we'll know just what to do," the storybook says. "Make noise, run around and throw our somethings at the wolf, and then we'll run right through the door and down the hallway, but don't run in a straight line. Run in a funny zig-zaggy way, and make strange noise the whole time!"
Davis said the the book and another activity book are options for teachers, but they don't have to use them. He said classes should take instruction from their teachers or adult leaders, though he said schools can't expect everyone to follow a plan if a shooter actually enters the school. Some may not be able to throw things or run or grab a shooter's leg. He described the defense tactics that will be practiced as "tools."
"The ALICE training model recognizes that students and adults may elect not to counter when faced with this type of situation," Davis said in an email Friday. "In our training scenarios for adults, the option is given to watch and not actively participate in a particular scenario. I'm confident that flexibility will translate to teachers as they prepare their students."
Teaching young kids to counter
But ALICE has not come without controversy. Critics say it's reckless to expect students, teachers and staff with limited training to go after an armed intruder, and ALICE could pose liability risks. A psychologist with the National Association of School Psychologists told Mother Jones magazine in 2013 that teaching students to attack an armed intruder could cause them unnecessary anxiety and stress.
Ken Trump, an Ohio-based school security consultant and vocal critic of ALICE, said Thursday he opposes training programs that quickly teach "close combat techniques," and then expect teachers and students of all ages and abilities to make "split-second decisions" if a shooter breaches their schools' doors. When teachers and students practice swarming a hypothetical shooter during a drill, he said, the actor likely does not fight back like an actual armed intruder would, giving teachers and students a false notion that they're "Superman and Superwoman."
"The devil is in the details of implementations. And you have to think about, 'How would this really work?'" Trump said. "Teaching kids to throw things and attack a heavily armed gunman is really a high-risk, high-liability proposition."
Trump said schools should focus on diversifying their lockdown drills, holding them at inconvenient times like when students first get to school. He also said schools should focus on more likely, day-to-day security threats, including what to do if a noncustodial parent shows up.
But both Joe Hendry, a national instructor with the ALICE Training Institute in Ohio, and Davis, with ASD, said preparing for an active shooter is similar to any other school drill, like a fire drill — students have to know what to do and have to try to remain calm.
Hendry, also a lieutenant at the Kent State Police Department in Ohio, said schools teach children to "stop, drop and roll" if they are on fire, and that's not taught in a "scary way," just like active shooter training will not be taught in a way that frightens students.
He said when he trains young children about what to do if a shooter enters their classroom, he'll instruct one table of students to scream, another group to run around the room and a third to throw things at him.
"And then I have all three tables do it at one time. It's all stuff that they do anyway, and it's not done in a scary way or anything," he said.
Plus, Hendry said, he researched where the traditional, lockdown-only procedure originated, and found it was never intended to be used if a person with a gun entered a school. Instead, he said, it was developed in response to drive-by shootings and street-level crime happening outside a school.
Both Hendry and Davis also said the ALICE method follows guidelines by federal agencies. The 2013 "Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans," by six federal agencies including the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education, says if there's an active shooter in a school, people should run out of the building if it's safe to do so. If neither running nor hiding is safe, as a last resort, "adults in immediate danger should consider trying to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter by using aggressive force and items in their environment, such as fire extinguishers, and chairs," the guide says.
The guide also says, no one response fits all shooter situations and each person should know their options.
An FBI study that analyzed active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013 found in 21 of 160 incidents (not all of them at schools) unarmed citizens "safely and successfully restrained the shooter." In 11 of the 21 incidents, unarmed school principals, teachers, staff or students were the ones who confronted the shooter. The shooters were students in nine of those incidents, the study says.
Davis talked about 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, as an example of how one person can save lives. At Sandy Hook, Lewis shouted for his classmates to run while the gunman, Adam Lanza, paused to put a new clip in his semiautomatic rifle, The Associated Press reported.
"That was in a passive lockdown situation and people were just dying and he recognized that, 'Hey, it is smarter for us to get out of here,'" Davis said.
Lewis was shot moments after he yelled, reported the AP. Lewis was one of the 26 people killed, 20 of them young children, in the attack on the elementary school in Connecticut in 2012. Police said Lewis may have saved the lives of his classmates by urging them to evacuate, the Hartford Courant reported.
Anchorage School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler, a longtime teacher, said the ALICE approach makes sense to her. She recalled substituting years ago at the King Career Center, when the school went on lockdown. For about 90 minutes, her class hid in the dark, with no further instruction but to wait for the all-clear. Someone was ramming cars and evading police nearby, she said.
"I remember thinking, 'Wow, what do we do next?'" she said.
Agosti-Gisler said it also made sense that "only when you absolutely have to," teachers and students should counter the shooter. It's a difficult topic to discuss with children, she said, but it has to be done.
The FBI study said between 2000 and 2013, there were 39 "active shooter incidents" at schools and colleges with 117 people killed and 120 wounded. There have been many school shootings since then, including in 2015 when a gunman killed nine people and then himself at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, and in 2014 when a student killed four classmates and then himself at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington.
"When people say, 'This is not subject matter for our young kids,' I would say, 'You're 100 percent right, but that's not the world we live in, unfortunately,'" Agosti-Gisler said.
The school board approved hiring Davis last school year. He started in February as the director of safety and security, a role vacant since 2012 because of budget concerns, Agosti-Gisler said.
Davis said when he started, his first priority was to develop relationships with all of the school principals and to assess threats, big and small, from slips and falls to "the absolute worst thing that could happen at the school district," he said.
However, he said he also received the suggestion to collaborate with Mat-Su Schools' safety and emergency preparedness coordinator, Joe Schmidt, a former state corrections commissioner, who told him Mat-Su used ALICE to train for active shooters. Davis said he reviewed federal documents, asked questions and looked at other programs.
"And I quickly came to the conclusion that ALICE was the best training we could get for an organization of this size," Davis said.
The district's school resource officers — APD officers dedicated to ASD schools — were also involved in reviewing the active shooter protocols and "seem to really like the ALICE method," said Jennifer Castro, Anchorage Police Department spokesperson.
"It's not a controversial thing for us at all, we think it's a good plan," Castro said. There are 15 resource officers districtwide, she said.
Davis said ALICE has been widely adopted by districts across the country, and he felt confident it would empower teachers to make smart decisions to save lives. Plus, he said, just because it's hard to talk to students about an armed intruder entering their school, and the topic may trouble parents, it doesn't mean ASD shouldn't do it.
"You have to ask yourself, 'What's the alternative?'" Davis said. "Do nothing?"
The school district is holding an informational meeting on ALICE at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the ASD Education Center, 5530 E. Northern Lights Boulevard.