There is a growing belief in law enforcement circles — supported by common sense — that students and teachers should be prepared to do more than alert police and hide in the unlikely event of a school shooting. Fleeing, barricading doors, and even throwing objects at an attacker may increase chances of survival, depending on the situation. Some local school systems, including Canton, are already opting for programs that teach such techniques.
But part of that education should stress the rarity of such incidents. Violent deaths at schools account for less than 1 percent of the homicides and suicides among children ages 5 to 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Any effort to instruct students on survival strategies should be presented in a wider context of how to respond to dangers in malls, public transit, theaters, or other potential danger zones.
Some programs create dangers of another kind. School administrators should take care not to fall into the clutches of private security consultants who use scare tactics or push for mindlessly aggressive responses. Canton has opted for what appears to be a sound program called ALICE, which stands for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.” ALICE focuses on training a few representatives, such as school police officers and administrators, who in turn can train the larger school community.
Competent trainers and those they train should stress prevention as well as intervention. Half of all perpetrators of school homicides, for example, gave warning signals, such as threats or notes, prior to the event. Great care must also be taken by schools to communicate with parents and school boards about which programs they choose and why.
School officials should be especially mindful of at which age to introduce children to the subject. It could easily terrorize children in the elementary grades. The better option might be to introduce some of the concepts — such as fleeing instead of hiding — in the context of child safety programs already in use in lower grades.
There is nearly universal agreement among security experts that some threats — such as hijackings and abduction attempts — call for the most aggressive and immediate responses on the part of victims. There is less agreement on whether school shootings fall into this range, with some security experts suggesting that lockdowns and hiding are still the safest course.
On balance, however, the proponents of a more active approach make a convincing case that doing something is often a better way to avoid harm from a violent intruder than sitting still. It’s a hard lesson, and one that should be delivered carefully.