My friend’s eight-year-old daughter came home from school recently and bolted into the bathroom. When she came out, her mother asked, “Is everything okay?”
They’d had a safety drill at school that day, her daughter explained, at which they’d been told, among other things, that if an intruder entered the school while they were in the bathroom, they should lock the stall and climb onto the toilet seat so he couldn’t see their feet. “I’m never going to use the bathroom at school again,” she announced.
My friend quickly reassured her daughter that the odds of something like that happening were slim. But as she recounted the story to me later, she added, “In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, I don’t want you to use the bathroom either!”
With 52 school shootings last year as of October, gunmen have become the proverbial atomic bomb of my kids’ generation—a thing that could happen, a thing we need to prepare for. Over the past year or so, in nearly every district in Massachusetts, schools have aggressively ramped up their training for active-shooter situations. The first thing they need to communicate to our kids is that there’s a possibility, however slight, that a killer might be coming for them.
How kids are taught is up to each school district—the state lacks a standard protocol. I first heard of the approach in my town, Wayland, at my kids’ elementary school last spring. Lured by the promise of free childcare and pizza, I attended a meeting billed as an overview of new safety procedures. I had no idea what I was walking into.
Think for a moment about the unthinkable: What if your child’s school was infiltrated by a mass murderer? What would you want them to know to make it out alive?
Then think back to when you were a kid. If you grew up in the ’50s, you were probably taught to duck and cover to survive aerial bombings. In the ’80s, we were led single-file down to the “fallout shelter”—the school basement—to dodge a nuclear attack. By the end of the 20th century, the standard response to any threat—be it weather, accidents, bombs, or intruders—was the lockdown: Pull down the curtains, be quiet, and lie still on the ground.
All of these approaches were passive—shelter, hide, stay quiet. But what happens when the intended target is you?
After the tragedy at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, it became clear that the passive approach doesn’t work when a killer targets kids. On that horrific day, 52 teens and four staffers huddled under tables in the library as two students roamed the hallways brandishing shotguns, a carbine, a semiautomatic handgun, and pipe bombs. Just around the corner was an emergency exit leading out to the sidewalk. Yet anytime the kids peeked out, teacher Patti Nielson shrieked in panic, “Under the tables, kids, heads under the tables!” Four minutes later, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold burst into the library and killed 10 teenagers.
The lockdown approach continued to fail at Red Lake, Virginia Tech, and during numerous other active-shooter situations, until the brutal slaying of 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 finally led to a change in concept by the government.
Thirteen months after Sandy Hook, Governor Deval Patrick established the Massachusetts Task Force on School Safety and Security, which proposed several ways to enhance a lockdown, including barricading doors, distracting or countering the assailant, and self-evacuation. “No child will be able to succeed academically if they don’t first feel safe in school,” Governor Patrick said when he signed the executive order, “and no teacher will be able to teach at their best if they aren’t confident there’s a plan in place to ensure their school is well prepared for an emergency.”
Last year, the town of Wayland adopted a version of this response strategy called ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate), created by Dallas-area police officer Greg Crane in 2001. Shortly after Columbine, Crane asked his wife, an elementary school principal, how her school handled emergency situations. She told him: “The teachers get everyone in a classroom, lock the door, turn off the lights, sit in the corner, and wait for the police to arrive.” For the first time, Crane understood why so many people were killed and wounded in school shootings: The targets were too damn easy.
So Crane devised a program that instead provided options-based, proactive survival strategies. “It’s a fallacy to believe that a passive response, or relying on a locked door, will always maximize survival chances,” Crane says. ALICE encourages individuals to participate in their own survival—to read the situation and make decisions in the moment. “A one-size-fits-all plan will always be inadequate,” he maintains. Nearly 15 years later, ALICE is now the most widely used active-shooter response program in the United States.
Under the fluorescent lights of the school cafeteria, Wayland police officer Shane Bowles, a no-nonsense, physically imposing man with a shaved head, walks me and a dozen other parents through each component of the ALICE drill.
It begins with “alert.” He says if someone forces his way into a school, or looks highly suspicious (whether it be as blatant as carrying a gun, or simply a gut feeling from a facial expression or bearing), an administrator or teacher repeats the word “ALICE” three times into the intercom system, followed by specific details—for example, “There’s an armed intruder outside the cafeteria.” At that signal, teachers immediately evacuate students from the building.
If the kids can’t escape—say, the intruder is in the hallway outside the classroom—they turn off the lights and lock and barricade the doors with whatever materials they have: chairs, desks, filing cabinets. The hope is that the intruder won’t waste time trying to climb over, or dislodge, the objects to get into the room, Bowles says; he’ll simply move on.
I’m on the edge of my seat as Bowles speaks, as is every other parent in the room. Half-eaten slices of pizza have been pushed aside. A woman raises her hand. “How will the active-shooter drills be practiced with children in the school?” she asks nervously. “Will there be a man with a gun running down the hallway?”
The room quiets and all eyes turn toward Bowles. “Just an intruder,” Bowles reassures us. “No weapons.”
If the aggressor forces his way into the classroom, Bowles says that students are encouraged to gather items, such as water bottles, textbooks, pencils—even a fire extinguisher—to throw at him. Bowles emphasizes, “This is not about fighting. You’re trying to distract him and buy more time for possible escape.” He stresses that they don’t teach this to the younger kids—although he does mention an elementary school in the Midwest that has students keep soup cans in their desks to throw at armed gunmen.
“We’re not doing that here,” Bowles says. But “distraction absolutely works. If you’re trying to aim a gun at someone, and they’re throwing something at your face, it takes a lot more concentration—especially if you’re not a proficient shooter.”
Bowles says that telling kids to run, showing them how to barricade doors, and offering methods to distract the shooter likely puts Wayland at the forefront of response training in the Boston area, along with a handful of other towns, including Sudbury, Lincoln, Canton, Lexington, Bedford, Winchester, and Waltham. In an instructional video produced by Waltham High School students, a group of teenagers rush at a shooter, sweeping him off his feet and holding him down until help arrives. His weapon slides across the floor, and the kids throw a trash can over it. “Do not pick up the weapon, as you may be mistaken as the aggressor,” the narrator says.
This approach worked on a train in Paris when three passengers rushed a heavily armed terror suspect, thwarting the gunman’s ability to kill. But I can’t help but think about the circumstances that made the intervention a success: The perpetrator’s gun got stuck. And the heroes were a civilian and two U.S. service members— full-grown men who’d been trained for combat by the military. Not school kids.
Other towns have taken a more conventional approach to the threat. One friend’s Brookline middle schooler was told to turn over her desk and hide behind it. Her school also ran an evacuation drill, but it was slow and orderly. Administrators soft-pedaled the threat, saying it could be a wild turkey, but the kids instinctively knew that was a euphemism for shooter. “That’s bad advice,” my friend told her daughter. Instead, she said, defy your teachers. Run. Get the hell out. Run through the neighborhood, over fences, around houses. Run like someone’s trying to kill you.
Some towns, like Marlborough, are only now adopting ALICE. Other police departments are less open to new approaches, suggesting that everyone just hang tight until their people get there. But after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino—in which dozens died in minutes—it’s clear that isn’t the right answer.
The average incident is over in four or five minutes, Bowles tells me. Casualties may have already occurred by the time the police get there. Bowles and the other police officers I spoke with don’t mince words. They talk about wanting to “reduce carnage,” which makes me wince. But I’m relieved that someone is telling it to me straight.
Not every parent wants their kids preparing for potential threats, even if this training could save their lives. And I get that. The whole exercise runs counter to how we parent now—many of us work hard to create idyllic childhoods and shelter our kids from the world’s ugliness. With the odds of anything happening at 1 in 2.5 million, maybe it’s not worth scaring them. “It’s so freaking upsetting and distressing to think about preparing my kids for such an event,” says a mother of two boys in Sharon. Does she have a point?
One school psychologist I talked with thinks so. A mom of two young children who works in a suburb of Boston, she says ALICE goes too far. “We already live in a world full of very anxious everybodies,” she told me. “Why make our kids more worried?” She’d prefer that only the teachers practice the drills and then instruct their students to “listen to the adult in charge.” Her reasoning? “The more details you give kids, the more confusing it gets for them.”
The psychologist believes parents should have a say in the language used in the discussions with kids. And she’d leave out the word intruder. “It evokes fear,” she says. “All our kids need to know is that we have to leave the building for whatever reason.” School, she concludes, should be viewed as a safe place by our children. I think of my friend’s daughter who’s now afraid to use the bathroom and see her point.
Then again, the more I talk with kids, the more I realize that we parents are more anxious than they are. Whatever we think or do, this is the world they’ve inherited. My friend’s seven-year-old daughter thought the drills were “fun.” “Why?” her mother, who’d been nervously waiting to debrief her daughter after the drill, asked with surprise. “Because I get to see my teacher run,” she said.
A five-year-old kindergartner told his mom that running into the woods was “kinda silly.” She later told me that he seemed “unfazed by the drill.” Did he get what it was for? I asked. “He certainly understood there was an intruder they were avoiding,” she said. “He seemed to feel safe with the teachers who were running the drill.”
Confirms Wayland elementary school principal Jim Lee: “It’s what they’re used to.” In the same way we tell our kids to wear helmets, look both ways when they cross the street, and put on their seatbelts, we’re telling them, “Run in a zigzag pattern from the school.” That sounds horrifying to us, but our kids simply nod their heads. More useful rules from the adult world.
I didn’t fully grasp how accepting our children were until I observed an ALICE drill in action at my kids’ school in November. At Principal Lee’s announcement that there was an “intruder heading down the hallway toward the cafeteria,” the kids bolted from their classrooms through the exit doors to their designated meeting spots on the perimeter of the playground. I saw determination in their eyes, not fright. In less than one minute, 400 students and staff cleared that building. I felt a rush of emotions: sadness at the world we live in, but it also felt like a small victory against some nameless, faceless enemy, a big middle finger to the gun-toting bully who expects them to be cowering in the corner. No, these kids will not be sitting ducks.
When my boys got home that afternoon, they told me all the ways they were going to attack the intruder—from “corn-dogging him” to “getting a tank and shooting the dirt under his feet to make him go flying” to “calling in snipers.”
“If the intruder peeks under the stall,” one son said, “I’m going to jump on his head and break his neck.” Fine thoughts, but they’re unarmed children. They may feel empowered, but the truth is that survival, in these instances, will mostly come down to luck.
When we were young, we knew who the enemies were…and they were far away. Now it could be the kid next door. And if the threat is real, our kids will need superhuman instincts, strength, and providence. Because the truth is that if there’s a school shooting, no amount of preparation will guarantee survival. The drills are there to make the adults feel a little less helpless, a little more in control, in a world that’s spun clear off its axis.
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