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Can Your Child Be Taught to Defeat a Gunman at Her School?

Photo: National Center for Youth Issues

The campus mass shooting at Umpqua Community College has left many people, including President Obama, feeling a bit hopeless. What can be done? Stricter gun control seems doomed, and the country doesn’t — for good reason — seem quite ready for Dr. Ben Carson’s shoot-from-the-hip, arm-the-teachers prescription. If this sort of occasional horror is now considered almost inevitable, is it time to start training students to defend themselves, guerrilla-warfare style, against what law enforcement calls “active shooters,” by creating barricades of desks and causing chaos with pencils and water bottles?

There are Facebook forums dedicated to offering DIY ideas for school staff when faced with an armed intruder. But Greg Crane, among others, is making money off the understandable sense of vulnerability.

I’ve seen it going back to the Amish school shooting, Virginia Tech, and Aurora,” says Crane, a Texas police officer turned student-defense-strategy entrepreneur. “After every one of these events, we get more calls.” His company, called ALICE, charges $595 for a single teacher or law-enforcement official to become certified in their anti-armed-wacko protocols.

Naturally, ALICE is an acronym, which stands for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.” These five words describe what to do in a terrible situation. Crane started ALICE with his wife, Lisa, an elementary-school principal at the time, after the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy.

For years, the common teaching was ‘Be passive, be static, hold tight, and wait for police to rescue you,’” Crane tells Daily Intelligencer. But after Columbine, Greg Crane was frustrated with the idea that in the event of a gun-wielding misfit marauding murderously through the halls of his wife’s school, she and her students would have to sit passively and wait for help to arrive.

So Crane created a set of strategies meant to guide staff and students to be more, as he puts it, “proactive.” Crane says more than 2,000 school districts nationwide have incorporated the ALICE program into their curriculum, and more than 1,900 police officers are certified ALICE instructors.

ALICE has even come out with a branded line of children’s books. In I’m Not Scared … I’m Prepared!, a school-age ant at the Ant Hill School learns what to do if he encounters an ant-hungry wolf (maybe an anteater seemed too sympathetic to be the villain?), and learns anti-wolf procedures – including throwing something at the wolf, making strange ant noises, and running zigzag to distract him. It also quotes Theodore Roosevelt, saying, “The worst thing you can do is nothing.”

While many education professionals, like Dr. Stephen Brock of the National Association of School Psychologists, consider the training as “an overreaction and potentially dangerous,” it is gaining some traction.

Photo: Brett Compton

So how does ALICE work?

Under the “Lockdown” step, students are taught how to stack desks, chairs, and other classroom materials in order to create a barricade. “Don’t rely on a lock,” Crane explains. “A locked door isn’t always gonna keep a bad guy out.”

Students are taught how to “make the room more like a fort” in a video featuring an Ohio police officer training a group of elementary children. The officer explains that kids should move chairs, desks, and shelves in front of the door in the event of a lockdown.

But it’s the “Counter” strategies that ALICE really emphasizes. “If I can’t be there in time to help you, the next best thing is to get you strategies I can do to help you help yourself,” Crane explained. “That is the basis of the counter strategies.”

If students aren’t able to evacuate the building, and a gunman is inside a classroom, students are advised to “engage in noise, movement, distance, visible distractions” to impede the gunman’s ability to shoot them accurately. Since most school shootings have been conducted by a lone gunman, Crane explains, students have a mathematical advantage over him.

You’ve got to immediately start moving. A moving target is much more difficult than a static target. We want you to make as much noise as possible and [create] visual distractions,” Crane says. He suggests that students throw pencils, water bottles, and any other school supplies at the gunman’s face in order to overstimulate him.

If you get enough items moving at the face, the part of the body that all humans try to protect, you get this defensive reflex that occurs, the arms go up, and the pistol ends up toward the ceiling, and if there are any trigger pulls, that’s a good place for it to go.”

ALICE-instructed students are encouraged to do whatever they can to escape the gunman at this point. He suggests that small children should scream, bite, and kick the intruder.

In the first few years of the ALICE training program, Crane says he was asked to leave a lot of schools who didn’t like his message. “They didn’t want to hear that proactive response was probably going to be necessary for those under threat to survive.”

In January, a middle school in Valley, Alabama, sent a letter home with each student requesting canned goods for defense against unwelcome intruders, as part of their ALICE training. “The canned food item could stun the intruder or even knock him out until the police arrive,” the letter read. “The canned food item will give the students a sense of empowerment to protect themselves and will make them feel secure in case an intruder enters the classroom.”

Brett Compton, an Illinois police officer, started the Facebook page “Project Prepared: Response Options for School Intruders,” in light of the recent shooting in Oregon. The page is intended to give teachers a place to discuss ways to “win” in a fight against a gunman, as well as tips on “fortifying their classrooms” with safety measures. Discussion threads involve U-locks, belts, and having hornet spray on hand.

But Michael Dorn, executive director of the school safety nonprofit Safe Havens International, said: “People are being conditioned for the wrong situations and in the wrong ways. I know it’s all meant well, but at the end of the day, it may waste a lot of money and time and may not make the schools that much safer. And that is our priority.”

Crane says he doesn’t like to call these counter-strategies “fighting back,” but school security consultant Ken Trump says that it is most definitely just that — and it’s a bad idea.

To think that schools are going to teach kids close-combat tactics in one 45-minute session is a high-liability proposition,” he says.

Trump suggests that businesses like ALICE are playing off people’s emotions. Historically, he says, if a classroom is properly locked, there should be no need for students to attack the intruder. In an analysis of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2013, Trump concluded that no one was harmed in rooms that had effectively locked their doors.

David Esquith, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that his department doesn’t recommend students of any size or age fight shooters — even as a last resort.

It’s not just a matter of how big someone is, there’s a great deal of judgment that goes into how to deal effectively as possible with this very, very complicated type of situation,” Esquith said.

There’s a big difference between telling parents, ‘We’re giving your kids options,’ and telling them to attack a heavily armed gunman,” Trump says. “You can’t put lipstick on a pig.”

Can Your Child Learn to Defeat a School Shooter?