It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Shots are fired in your child’s school. A shooter is on the loose.
Police are on the way. But in the meantime, your child’s life is in the hands of school officials.
In the past, teachers and students have been taught to lock down or shelter-in-place during an active shooter event. But that’s changing nationwide, including Juneau, where teachers, students and public officials are learning a new tactic for dealing with such emergencies.
The new strategy is called ALICE That’s short for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate.
Tom Mattice is emergency programs manager for the City and Borough of Juneau. He says ALICE is not a sequential checklist of things to do in the event of an active threat. Instead, he says, it gives people options.
“If I heard gunshots at the other end of the building and I knew there was a safe way to evacuate, it would be the first thing I did,” Mattice says. “If I don’t know where the threat’s coming from, I may need to lockdown for a second.”
Mattice says the “Alert” aspect of ALICE is easy: Once you can safely call the police, do so.
“Inform” teaches people to gather information about the threat.
“Counter” may sound like a suggestion to directly engage, but he says that’s only if there’s no other choice. Mattice says it actually takes advantage of the brain’s natural fight or flight instincts.
“We tell people to lock the door and get on the floor in the corner and sit and wait, and that’s not a natural instinct,” he says. “Not only that, when the intruder comes into the room, we make easy targets of ourselves.”
Dozens of YouTube videos from the for-profit ALICE Training Institute show how to counter an active shooter, including throwing things. For students and teachers in classrooms that could mean books, staplers, scissors, anything that’s not nailed down.
Another method is called swarming, where several people rush toward and try to disarm a shooter.
Blain Hatch is a school resource officer and a 22-year veteran of the Juneau Police Department. He says the lockdown response to an active threat came from the jail system.
“Which made sense. You have a problem, you lock down, isolate your threat, deal with it and move on,” Hatch says. “So, in the ‘70s, the L.A. school district took that philosophy, because they had a lot of gang problems. But it was outside, there were shootings, there were fights. Well unfortunately, in our society in the last 25-ish years, that violence has now moved into large areas—churches, malls, schools.”
JPD hosted a statewide ALICE training for school officials and first responders in December. Recently, the department held its first drill with local students and teachers at Floyd Dryden Middle School. This week, more than 50 people attended a free public training.
Hatch says the concept works well in any large setting.
“We stress, we’re not training people to be ninjas. We’re not telling you to get involved,” he says. “But if you have somebody come into a room, why would you cower down and be a victim? Try and remove yourself from the room.”
Last May, Hatch was the first officer on scene at Thunder Mountain High School after reports of a gun on campus. After determining the firearm was no longer inside the building, Hatch and the school’s principal made the decision to put classrooms in lockdown. In that situation, he says, it was the appropriate response.
“But the teachers, man, they were barricading, they were getting stuff ready in case the person came in (or) there was another threat,” says Hatch. “But yeah, that was why, because the information all dictated that the threat was outside of the school.”
Some critics of ALICE training programs have argued there’s no hard evidence that it prevents people from dying in mass shootings or other emergencies. There’s also concern about whether younger students or students with developmental disabilities can fully grasp the concepts.
But the city and Juneau School District have adopted and begun to implement the strategy.
Juneau Douglas High School teacher Sara Hannan is a member of the Juneau Education Association executive committee. She says the teachers’ union does not have a position on ALICE, but as with all district policies JEA will push for adequate training.
Hannan says she personally doesn’t have a problem with it.
“I have always been out of compliance with what our training was, and I usually told my administration that I did not intend to sit quietly if we have an emergency going on, that I would self-evacuate,” Hannan says. “And I always, you know, I kind of jokingly say to the students, but then show them, there in the corner of the room I have one of those fire escape ladders, and that we would evacuate.”
Hatch and Mattice say they hope schools will hold regular ALICE practice drills. They say fire drills essentially ended deaths from school fires, and maybe the same thing can happen with school shootings.
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the “C” in ALICE stands for “combat.” It actually stands for “counter.”