ALICE program aims to protect students from active shooter in school
The training session in Hampton certainly looked real.
Dana Wachter, a Pressley Ridge administrator posing as a teacher, told her “students” to hide beneath their desks and be quiet just before a man burst through the door and started shooting. Bullets hit five people in their legs, hands and backs as they cowered.
“How safe did you feel?” said trainer/gunman Gary Kamp, lifting his plastic face mask.
“Not very,” several victims answered. All representatives from area schools, they rubbed the sting from areas where they were hit.
Kamp, a trainer for the Medina, Ohio-based ALICE Training Institute, fired plastic pellets at the 30 trainees from schools and police departments.
The “ALICE” program, which stands for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate,” has become popular among Western Pennsylvania school districts in the past five years as an alternative or supplement to lockdowns and sheltering in place.
Schools and communities have had to consider how violent attacks unfolded at Columbine High School in Colorado, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville.
The institute has certified representatives from 31 school districts and 24 law enforcement agencies in Allegheny County, who then train colleagues, said Joanna Terry, program manager for Pennsylvania. In Beaver County, 13 school districts and police departments are trained; in Butler County, 12; in Westmoreland County, four; and in Washington County, 14. That number grows as officers who are trained begin to train others.
A two-day session with the institute costs $595 per person. A district or police department that hosts training gets free training for some staff, Terry said.
Kamp said the program offers alternatives to hiding and waiting for police, a time when school shooters can take advantage of targets.
“We can never, ever go back to a traditional lockdown,” said Bethel Park School Police Officer Jim Modrak, who brought ALICE training to his district in 2013 and plans full drills in the fall. “We came to realize ... these events will be over, expired, before police can get into the buildings. These individuals' intent is to harm as many people as possible in a short amount of time. Everyone realizes we can't just stand there, be passive.”
As districts adopt the program, officials must explain to parents and children as young as kindergarten what to do in an active-shooter situation.
Mt. Lebanon school psychologists who trained in Bethel Park last year and relayed the lessons to staff, worked with the municipality's police to develop “scripts” for teachers to discuss strategies with kids, said district spokeswoman Cissy Bowman.
“There are a lot of interpretations of how to share it with kids,” said Mt. Lebanon police Deputy Chief Aaron Lauth. “Some districts go full-tilt with simulated SWAT situations. ... We didn't think we'd do that.”
Elementary teachers keep it simple by defining an intruder to kids and emphasizing that they should follow teachers' instructions on whether to barricade the door, evacuate through a door or window or counter an attacker by throwing things, running in zigzags or making lots of noise.
Older students get an adult presentation, Lauth said: “High schoolers are going to be in situations where they may have to make decisions for themselves.”
Jay Johnson, assistant principal at Bethel Park High School, said his district purchased materials from ALICE for students in kindergarten through fourth grade that explain the concepts in terms of “sheep” and “wolves,” noting that the sheep should listen to their shepherd.
“The older kids, we're going to be frank with them,” he said.
The program has its critics.
Ken Trump, a Cleveland-based school security consultant, said countering a gunman does not factor in age, developmental issues or children's special needs.
“The reality is that you can't get a group of middle schoolers to simultaneously agree upon whether to attack chicken nuggets or pizza for lunch in the cafeteria,” Trump wrote in an email. “How on Earth should we expect them, after a one-shot assembly presentation, to effectively neutralize a heavily armed gunman?”
Yet Aaron Vanatta, a former school resource officer for Keystone Oaks who works for Quaker Valley School District, said he emphasizes the program has options to be chosen if appropriate and safe.
“Countering doesn't mean going and seeking out this person and trying to fight them,” Vanatta said. “If you can't use these other options, it's buying others time and distance.”
Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or firstname.lastname@example.org.