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Conn. shootings prompt schools to reconsider response to intruders

Georgetown police at the town’s high school on Dec. 12. Police estimate they can reach any town school within two minutes.

Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

Georgetown police at the town’s high school on Dec. 12. Police estimate they can reach any town school within two minutes.

If an armed intruder were to enter any school in Georgetown, Police Chief James Mulligan is confident officers could be on site within two minutes.

The size of the town — about 13 square miles — provides police with an advantage in response time, said Mulligan, but offers no guarantee that officers would be there soon enough to stop a killer like Adam Lanza before he struck.

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“Could we stop it from happening in Georgetown? We can get there fast. But how long before someone gets to us to let us know something is happening?” said Mulligan.

Last Friday, students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., were immersed in morning activities when Lanza, 20, shot his way inside, turned left toward the first-grade classrooms, and rapidly gunned down 26 people, including 20 children, ages 6 and 7, with a high-speed semiautomatic rifle. The shootings lasted about 10 minutes.

“We’re all lost trying to figure out what happened,” said Mulligan. “I take school security to heart but you can’t control all the factors.

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“What happened in Newtown, it’s maybe larger than our town but it’s so similar that I said, ‘It is Georgetown.’ It is just like this town,” added the chief, who noted the community will gather at 6:30 tonight at Georgetown Middle High School to air feelings and fears sparked by the Newtown shooting.

That a disturbed young man with three guns gained entry to an elementary school in a quiet New England town and — in minutes — inflicted a devastating death toll before turning a gun on himself has prompted security reviews at schools across the country. The manner in which the attack unfolded also is relevant to what have become more urgent discussions about a security protocol known as ALICE, which unlike the lockdown response followed in Newtown, prepares students to take a more active approach — including throwing objects, such as backpacks and chairs — if cornered by a shooter.

In Massachusetts, police and school officials have been attending training and presentations about ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — which is used by about 300 school districts nationwide. It emphasizes making active decisions, such as barricading classroom doors; coordinating on-the-spot evacuations; and, if all else fails, throwing objects and using body weight to topple a shooter.

The time for action is now, said Greg Crane, ALICE creator and a former SWAT team officer from Texas. “We’ve got to teach kids to make themselves harder targets,” he said. “There is always a location that is first. People say if we can get them in a secure environment, that is enough, but there is always a group of people at the location of the attack.”

WINSLOW TOWNSON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The Penn Brook Elementary School in Georgetown.

Even before Newtown, Superintendent Joanne Benton said the Wilmington school district decided to start training students to use ALICE by spring. She revealed that officials confidentially adopted the policy in an executive session of the school board last spring.

In January, district staff will be trained. Parent information sessions will be held in February and March. In April, student training kicks off, and, in light of the Newtown shooting, she said, younger children will be trained along with those in middle and high school.

“We had concerns about training students in the elementary schools but frankly, after seeing what happened in Newtown, it makes sense to include them,” said Benton, noting that material taught to younger children will be delivered in a careful manner.

At Sandy Hook Elementary School, Benton said, one of the ALICE protocols — evacuate — was instinctively enacted. “Some of the kids chose to run out of the building and it saved their lives,” she said.

Students and teachers need more options than those provided by current security protocol, said Benton. “They can’t be sitting ducks.”

Wilmington Police Lieutenant Scott Sencabaugh, a unit commander for the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, which includes about 50 police and sheriff departments in Middlesex and Essex counties, said changes are coming to traditional lockdown procedure in many districts. The question is not if, but when.

The Newtown shootings “underscore the need for everyone to take a solid look at their own security policies in their district,” Sencabaugh said. “I hope people use it as a leaping-off point to see if there is any way to tighten up safety plans and drills and maybe reduce some of the casualties.”

In Georgetown, ALICE was considered by school and police officials in 2008, but the idea was tabled because it was unpopular with parents. Following the Newtown massacre, parents may feel differently.

“What it boiled down to was: As a last-ditch effort, should children be trained to fight off attackers by throwing whatever is available to them? That debate is still active,” said Mulligan, the Georgetown police chief.

“We’re discussing it right now. It has to be a community decision with police, schools, and the parents involved. We cannot tell the students what to do or train them without the parents behind it,” said Mulligan, who is now approaching selectmen to fund a full-time resource officer in the schools.

Georgetown’s superintendent, Carol Jacobs, said the district has collaborated with police to develop a lockdown protocol called Code Blue, an emergency crisis plan practiced in regular drills. The addition of resistance-based strategies is being considered.

“In terms of ALICE, we have discussed adding language to our protocol in the event of an extreme life-threatening encounter with an armed intruder that calls for staff and students to fight for their lives, but we have conducted no training on this at this time,” Jacobs said.

In Somerville, Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi said the district is reviewing safety protocols. ALICE was introduced to school officials by the police chief, but no decision on using it has been made, he said.

“We are aware of the ALICE enhanced options, which involve lots of motion and using objects to distract a potential shooter, and we are in the process of analyzing its appropriateness for students,” Pierantozzi said.

“Obviously, Friday’s events have reminded us that we need to keep everyone more aware and more in touch on a regular basis regarding security protocols.”

In Chelmsford, Superintendent Frank A. Tiano said a building administrator has gone through the ALICE training. “It is not something we have discussed as a district, though we have not ruled out that discussion,” he said.

In Newtown, Conn., 14 students and a substitute teacher huddled in the corner of the first classroom Lanza entered. Officials have said he shot each of them three to 11 times.

In a second classroom, Lanza shot a teacher and six more students before he heard police arriving and turned the gun on himself.

Crane, the ALICE founder, questioned whether children should hide passively if a gunman enters the room. Instead, he said, in some cases it makes more sense for students to run or create chaos.

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