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Interest widens in proactive approach to school crises

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 if an assailant armed with semiautomatic firearms and a 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 over two days last month, 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.

The session drew police and school officials from a number of Greater Boston communities, including Concord, Framingham, Franklin, Wellesley, and Westborough, as well as from New Hampshire and Connecticut. 

‘We are looking at it as a better response option for the police and the faculty and the students.’

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More than 300 school districts nationwide have adopted the protocol known as ALICE — an acronym for 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.

Now some area law enforcement officials are trying to persuade their school districts to consider using the ALICE protocol, though educators in several towns said they are not ready to commit.

In Concord, Police Chief Barry R. Neal said his department is reaching out to school officials to explore the program. “We’re reviewing our procedures with the school administration,” Neal said. “We are looking at it as a better response option for the police and the faculty and the students.”

The school system’s superintendent, Diana F. Rigby, said district officials have started learning about the protocol, including how, when, and why to use it. Any future decision about adopting ALICE in the Concord schools would involve discussion among police, administrators, and the School Committee, she said.

“We are just in the initial stages of discussion. At this point, we need a lot more information,” said Rigby.

Wellesley Superintendent David Lussier said the ALICE protocol is relatively unknown on the “school side” of the community, but not for long. He said Wellesley officers attended the Franklin workshop, and will provide an overview for Lussier and members of his leadership team.

“We are looking forward to a presentation from the Wellesley Police Department to learn more about the ALICE protocol,” he said. “At this point, we are not committing either way to what we may do. We are still in a discovery mode.”

Franklin’s superintendent, Maureen Sabolinski, said her district would be willing to consider using the ALICE protocol, but there has been no formal discussion about “going in a different direction at this time.”

“We would explore any avenue to make sure our students are safe. If police make an overture, we will certainly look at it,” she said.

Sabolinski added that two school administrators attended the recent ALICE workshop, which used Franklin High School as a training site for an afternoon session, she said. The staff members will report back at length during an upcoming team meeting, she said.

Integrating the new approach into traditional school policies requires gaining public support, which can be a slow process, according to a Canton police officer, Detective Chip Yeaton, who is also president of the Massachusetts Juvenile Police Officer’s Association and a school resource officer.

On Thursday, Yeaton will appear before the Canton School Committee to answer questions about the protocol. One of the leaders in a growing movement of police officers who believe the protocol can save lives, Yeaton advocated for the Canton system to adopt ALICE, and has helped train about half of the district’s staff.

Yeaton 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.”

A small but vocal group of parents also plans to attend the 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, providing it for 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 or with Response Options, a 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 resident with two children in elementary school, said she also plans to ask tough questions. She said she is not convinced that the training 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 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 said people often mistakenly emphasize and sensationalize the protocol’s “counter” option, meant to empower victims when escape is impossible, he said. Students are taught 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.

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

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