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Proactive approach to school crises stirs debate in Canton and beyond

A “gunman” — actually, New Bedford police officer Eric DaCosta — bursts unexpectedly into an ALICE training session last month in Franklin.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A “gunman” — actually, New Bedford police officer Eric DaCosta — bursts unexpectedly into an ALICE training session last month in Franklin.

A man with a gun enters a darkened classroom and begins shooting with mechanical precision: “Pop! Pop! Pop!”

None of the students move or resist, and within seconds the gunman has pulled the trigger more than 30 times. It is a virtual blood bath — and fortunately, just a demonstration — but it spotlights what could happen today if an assailant armed with semiautomatic firearms and a crazed will to kill gains entry into a school full of unsuspecting students and staff.

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Eric DaCosta, a New Bedford police officer playing the role of the gunman, soon flicks on the lights and announces: “Basically, right now, you’re dead. Why? Because we’ve trained you to just sit there.”

The workshop presentation, part of a professional training seminar hosted by the Franklin Police Department on Nov. 14-15, encouraged teaching students and school staff to resist an armed attacker in certain situations, a concept at the heart of a controversial safety protocol recently adopted by school officials in Canton.

More than 300 school districts nationwide have adopted the protocol known as ALICE — alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate. 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. Most US school districts use a traditional lockdown procedure that involves sounding an alert, locking classroom doors, turning out the lights, hiding in a far corner of the classroom, and remaining calm and quiet.

Eric DaCosta, a patrolman with the New Bedford Police Department, speaks to a class about the differences between passive and proactive reactions to a school emergency.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Eric DaCosta, a patrolman with the New Bedford Police Department, speaks to a class about the differences between passive and proactive reactions to a school emergency.

On Thursday, Canton police Detective Chip Yeaton, president of the Massachusetts Juvenile Police Officers’ Association and a school resource officer, will appear before the Canton School Committee to answer questions about the protocol. He had advocated for adoption of ALICE training by officials in his school district — and has helped train about half the district’s staff. He is also one of the leaders of a growing movement of police officers who believe the protocol can save lives. They are pushing for training of more police and educators so they may advocate for its implementation in other school districts.

A small but vocal group of parents also plans to attend the Dec. 6 meeting. Some said they would come with questions — and concerns about the district’s plans to expand the ALICE training in the next couple of weeks to include students in elementary through high school grade levels.

Suzanne Hegland, a Canton mother and an assistant dean of students at the New England Conservatory, said she is not impressed with the new protocol nor with Response Options, the Texas-based company that created the training, calling its concepts and website an amateur operation. Telling youngsters to toss staplers, books, and music stands at an armed assailant is absurd, she said.

“I consider Canton to be a fairly reasonable town. I’m so shocked that we are the first in the Greater Boston area to adopt this program,” said Hegland, a Huffington Post contributor who recently blogged on the issue.

Fifteen-year-old Elle Hegland, a sophomore at Canton High School, said she thought it was a joke when her mother first told her about ALICE. 

“I think it is unrealistic to think any of us would ever try to attack someone with a gun,” she said.

Susan Marshall, a Canton mother of two in elementary school, said she also plans to ask tough questions. She said she is not convinced the training even considers childhood developmental stages.

“The program is based on the premise that children have developed these higher-level reasoning skills at a young age,” she said. “My children nearly have a meltdown when I give them five minutes or less to make a decision at McDonald’s.”

Cynthia Thomas, vice chairwoman of the Canton School Committee, said she is reserving comment on ALICE training until after it is discussed at Thursday’s meeting. She said there has been no sign of any organized resistance from parents to the new program.

“We’ve received no letter or anything of that sort. It’s not something I’ve heard people talking a lot about,” Thomas said.

Yeaton concedes adopting the ALICE protocol as school policy requires gaining public support, which he says is a slow process. He said he decided to push Canton as a role model and inspire a regional trend, stating in an earlier interview, “Nobody wants to be the first to implement it. But I don’t care. I’m not waiting just because other school districts are not getting it.”

People often mistakenly emphasize and sensationalize the protocol’s “counter” option, meant to empower victims when escape is impossible, he said. Students learn to throw off an armed attacker using well-considered defensive strategies, he said, such as pitching objects toward the assailant. He said an influx of stimuli is well proven to decrease a shooter’s accuracy, even for law enforcement personnel. And ALICE training is sensitive to age differences and modified for delivery at the appropriate interval, he said.

The protocol has gained widespread support among the ranks of law enforcement in Massachusetts and was met with gung-ho enthusiasm at the recent training session in Franklin that drew police and school officials from communities such as Canton, Concord, Dedham, Framingham, Franklin, New Bedford, Wellesley, Westborough, and Winchester, and even from New Hampshire and Connecticut. 

Concord Police Chief Barry R. Neal said the training program is being discussed in his school district. “We’re reviewing our procedures with the school administration,” Neal said in an interview. “We are looking at it as a better response option for the police and the faculty and the students.”

Yet the gap between police enthusiasm and common school policy was also evident. During the presentation that featured the rapid-firing gunman, Brockton Police Lieutenant Chris LaFrance made a case for ALICE training to a supportive room.

“There is always resistance to change with a new program coming along. We already have lockdown in schools. We’re not talking about change. We’re talking about options to save lives,” he said, to shout-outs of agreement.

But despite a handful of school resource officers participating in ALICE training for professional development, Brockton public schools spokeswoman Jocelyn Meek said in an interview that her district is not considering training for students or staff.

“It is not something we are doing,” said Meek, who did not attend the workshop in Franklin. “I am loathe to have Brockton mentioned because this is not something we are doing in our school district.”

The ALICE protocol triggered skepticism and opposition when first introduced in other parts of the country, too — particularly as students began training drills. Schools officials would sometimes craft a careful letter to quell parental concerns, says Kenneth Trump, a safety consultant.  

In Ohio, Sycamore County Schools distributed a letter that offered a “participation waiver” to parents who wanted to exclude their child from the training. In Indiana, officials at Kankakee Valley High School fired off a letter to counter rumors and misconceptions, explaining: “In NO way are we asking or teaching our students or staff to make any attempts to subdue an armed gunman outside of their secure area. However, we will provide them with options that, if faced with a life or death situation, can be applied to greatly enhance their chance of survival. These options include escaping, barricading the door, and protecting oneself by any means necessary should an armed intruder enter the room.”

Over the past couple of weeks, the town of Canton, population about 22,000, has received wide attention — including coverage by ABC World News and the Daily Mail in Britain — about its plans to implement ALICE training.

Following a Nov. 9 article in the Globe about Canton adopting the protocol, a number of readers weighed in for or against the training. Some called it a waste of time, with one asking: “Why not prepare them to deal with bubonic plague, or grease fires, or snake bites?”

Another reader agreed, writing: “These sort of attacks are exceedingly rare, and spending much effort on them is diverting time from higher priority things like learning. If the current lockdown system is adequate, stop this nonsense and address real risks.”

But other readers characterized the training as a legitimate form of disaster preparedness.

One fired back at critics: “ALICE training is absolutely necessary exactly because the threat is both exceedingly rare and exceedingly deadly. When all else fails, and fighting back is the only option left, it is far better to be prepared to do exactly that, at any age. All of you who wish to ignore the threat have no clue and do not care about your kids.”

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

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