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Local schools consider teaching to fight back

Controversial training gains attention after attack

Several area school districts are interested in a controversial response to shooting rampages that trains teachers and students to act quickly to save themselves rather than hide in a locked classroom and wait for police.

Canton Police Chief Kenneth Berkowitz, a vocal supporter of the approach, said more than 10 communities have contacted him since the Dec. 14 Connecticut school shootings to learn about the response training, called ALICE, an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.

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“The old lockdown is pretty much antiquated,” said John Gagnon, a school resource officer in Hopedale, with a population about 6,000. “That whole hide-under-your-desk-and-wait is done.”

The training approach had been adopted by school officials in Canton, Hopedale, and Wilmington in the months before the Connecticut tragedy, although a junior-senior high school in Hopedale appears to be the only district to have actually trained students; it held a single practice drill this fall.

The ALICE approach has gained the support of local superintendents in Westborough and Stoughton, and has been the focus of exploratory inquiries in Concord, Franklin, North Andover, Wellesley, and Winchester. In Georgetown, the district has discussed altering its security protocol to include training staff and students in an extreme lift-threatening situation to “fight for their lives.”

“You have to counter. Like I told one high school kid, if it is not nailed down, you throw it: a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet, books, cellphones. Then, if you have the mind to, you counter and swarm.”John Gagnon, school resource officer in Hopedale

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Some school districts have been studying the ALICE approach for weeks, but their interest became public only after the Connecticut shootings.

About 300 out of more than 130,000 public and private schools nationwide, or about 1.5 million students, are using ALICE, which was created more than a decade ago by Greg Crane, a former SWAT officer in Texas, following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The ALICE approach is marketed by Response Options, a Texas-based security firm run by Crane.

ALICE includes alerting law enforcement and locking down in response to an armed attacker, which is common practice. But it also sanctions and trains students and staff to consider other possibilities, such as electing to flee the building; using video cameras and intercom to narrate the real-time movements of the gunman; and a last-ditch “counter” option that involves throwing objects and using body weight to topple a shooter.

Controversy has swirled around the “counter” option, which is often described by some safety experts and upset parents as encouraging children to attack gunmen. Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services based in Cleveland, is a longtime vocal critic of the “counter” tactic, which he deems dangerous and poorly conceived.

The Connecticut shootings have prompted school administrators to investigate strengthening security procedures but embracing the radical approach promoted by Response Options is not the answer, he said. Instead, Trump suggested school districts reexamine and update current protocols: diversify drills, develop alternative evacuation sites -- in short, modernize a standard lockdown, he said.

“We don’t need to throw out the playbook. The new thing in ALICE is the “counter” option — beyond that it is a repackaging of concepts and best practices used in this field for years,” he said.

Separately, the National Rifle Association last week called for armed security officers at every school in the country to prevent more shootings, a proposal that was derided by many politicians and educators.

Trump is among the critics of the NRA idea. “With the whole issue of what we are doing in this country, I think the conversation is borderline insane around school security. We are talking about arming teachers,” he said. “Teachers ought to be armed with textbooks, not guns.”

The introduction of ALICE has raised questions from parents and school board members in Canton, and Berkowitz will appear at a special Jan. 8 meeting of the Canton School Committee to explain the protocol and address concerns about how it will be taught to students in elementary grades through high school. Canton plans to schedule information sessions for parents this winter and train students in the spring.

“It is an interesting piece,” Hopedale superintendent Dennis Breen said of the “counter” option in the training approach.

He said Hopedale students were not introduced to the “counter” option this fall, nor did he endorse staff members throwing tennis balls and other objects at a mock gunman, which is used in some ALICE training practices.

“People even have implements they keep in their room to throw. I don’t want everyone to have a can of peas or a baseball, I think we’ll hold on that piece,” he said. “But if someone came in your classroom with a weapon, sure, throw a desk and get out of there.”

In Massachusetts, ALICE has developed a support base among some law enforcement groups, including the the Massachusetts Juvenile Police Officers’ Association and the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council.

In Wilmington, superintendent Joanne Benton revealed this week that ALICE was adopted in an executive session of the school board last spring. After the Newtown attack, she has decided elementary school students will be included in the new training along with those in middle and high schools. She stressed that material and tactics will be age-appropriate.

Westborough superintendent Marianne O’Connor said top school officials, including all principals, are working with police to implement some aspects of ALICE. They are “a little bit hung up on the counter part right now,” she said.

The idea of swarming an attacker is unrealistic in most cases, she said.

In the meantime, school officials have “told folks that if you can exit, go for it rather than stay in the room,” said O’Connor.

“All of our doors are locked and we have a very good safety plan. But even with that if you have a high-powered weapon, you’re going to get in the school,” she said.

Several communities are less enthusiastic but not entirely dismissive of ALICE as one kind of response to the semiautomatic rifle attacks in recent years.

In Wellesley, Police Chief Terry Cunningham said three officers were recently trained in ALICE; next, police will present the merits of some parts of it with school officials.

He said aspects of the “counter” option, such as barricading a locked classroom door with file cabinets and desks, are practical ideas. So is evacuating from the classroom, he said. “I know if I was someplace and the threat was imminent, I’d want to get out of there.”

In North Andover, superintendent Kevin Hutchinson said school officials met with police last spring about ALICE and “not everyone is comfortable with adopting the whole package,” but they will explore the evacuation option.

At Hopedale Junior Senior High School, a mock gunman ran through the halls with a bullhorn and siren during an initial practice drill this fall. As he rounded a corner, siren fading, students evacuated.

“It is not up to the police or faculty to tell them when to get out,” said Gagnon, who portrayed the mock gunman. “When we did the practice, there wasn’t any walking. These kids were running out of the building.

“It wasn’t a game; it was real to them. That to me was really good,” he said.

The schools haven’t decided whether to tell students to throw objects when they participate in drills this spring. The superintendent said verbal instructions may be enough, but Gagnon suggested physical practice might be in order — at least at the high school level.

“We will probably do that to some degree,” he said. “You have to counter. Like I told one high school kid, if it is not nailed down, you throw it: a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet, books, cellphones. Then, if you have the mind to, you counter and swarm.”

This is the side of ALICE that critics find alarming. Trump said training young people to attack an armed intruder crosses the line; it pressures children to address the source of the threat, which is an adult job, he said.

“Does the SWAT team respond to a shooter by throwing pencils, rocks, and books?” he said. “No, of course not. Yet you’re telling a child to do this.”

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

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