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Active shooters in schools: An options-based active-shooter policy for schools

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate

Article updated August 2, 2017.

There’s an old adage that states, “If you’re not shooting, you should be reloading. If you’re not reloading, you should be moving. If you’re not moving, you’re probably dead.”

I would bet that just about every cop in America who has kids has had a conversation along these lines:

“If you ever see someone other than daddy, mommy, or one of our police officer friends who has a gun, you need to run. Fast. Okay?”

“Okay, Dad.”

“Okay, Mom.”

You have kids and you haven’t had that discussion? Stop reading right now and talk with your kids.

You have had that conversation? Keep reading and, when you’re done, talk with your kids’ school administrators.

If You’re Not Shooting, ALICE...

Five days after the unspeakable horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I happened along a news item about the Cincinnati (Ohio) Police Department using the ALICE Response Program to keep kids safe in school.

Soon thereafter I spoke with Greg Crane, the founder of the ALICE program, which has been instructed at more than 300 school districts in the decade since its inception in 2002.

“I was a SWAT officer in the 90s, and we were training our butts off for a school shooter. Then Columbine happened. That was a slap of reality: ‘Guys, you’re not going to get there in time,’” Crane said.

Back then – and still today in too many places – the only planned response in a school’s policy handbook is some form of lockdown.

Crane turned to his wife – an elementary school principal – and asked her what she and her colleagues were taught to do if lockdown wasn’t feasible or if a previously secure area was breached?

Her reply: “Sit and wait until the good guys get there.”

Dissatisfied with that as a fully-fleshed-out emergency-response plan, Crane went in search of an options-based response plan. Not finding one to his liking, he created the ALICE Program.

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. Here’s a précis:

  1. Alert – Call 911
    Don’t assume others are contacting law enforcement. Give as clear and accurate information as possible that will answer the vital questions of who, what, when, where and how (at this point, Crane says, we don’t care why).
  2. Lockdown – Shelter in Place
    By locking down and barricading entry points, you make yourself a hard target. Locked down does not mean locked in. You may choose to barricade the door and exit out windows to safety.
  3. Inform – Constant, Real-time Updates
    This can be accomplished with things such as video surveillance equipment or public address systems. Information updates during a violent intruder incident allows occupants to make sound decisions about how to react and what steps – if any – to take next.
  4. Counter the Attack – A Last Resort
    When other options are not immediately possible – a locked/lockable door does not exist, or the intruder breaches a secured room – move, make noise, and get distraction devices (anything at hand) in the air and heading for the shooter’s face. Then you may attack or evacuate the area.
  5. Evacuate – Get Out!
    Your goal here is to put as much time and distance as possible between you and the attacker.

Please know that although the letters A-L-I-C-E may appear to be sequential steps to follow, they are not. The acronym is merely a mnemonic to help people under stress to remember the options available to them in an active-shooter scenario.

Learning From History

“Go back to Columbine,” Crane explained. “Why did those students sit in that library for five minutes before they were shot?”

They had a way out of that library, but a policy and a procedure – and the training given to Patti Nielson, a teacher and a hall monitor at Columbine High – dictated that they stay there.

“They stayed there five minutes too long,” Crane said.

“We typically see in these events people who end up basically disobeying the lockdown strategy. We saw it last week in Connecticut with 6-year-old kids running out of the building. Where is that included in a lockdown procedure?”

A Box Full of Options

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a policy of “lockdown, shelter in place and wait for the cavalry to arrive,” then an active killer may be given the tactical advantage merely by default policy.

We need a fully-outfitted toolbox of options.

Crane’s system acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits all strategy, and that teachers, administrators, students and, in the case of corporate environments, employers and employees, be given an options-based plan from which a situationally-sound solution can be drawn.

If all we tell people to do – and in many cases what we make them do – is to sit under a desk or in cower a corner, what are we really doing to mitigate the chances of an accurate shot by an active killer?

Why is it that when we have a natural killer like fire do we tell our kids to get out in an quick but orderly fashion, but when we have a human killer like a merciless predator prowling the hallways of their school, we tell them to stay perfectly still?

“Why,” asks Crane, “is that fundamental baseline response to danger different? Look at the conversations we have with very young children in ‘stranger danger training.’ None of that is ‘be passive, be static, be quiet...’

“Why,” asks Crane, “when we bring a very high level of danger into a school building in the form of a shooter – instead of a predator on the street – we tell them they have to be passive and static and quiet?”

Logical Solutions to Illogical Problems

Crane pointed out that at times like these, the C in “ALICE” gets all the attention. “Fighting back is what everyone wants to talk about, but Countering can be a lot of things – noise, movement, distractions – that makes the active killer’s job more difficult.”

Secure in place works when no contact with the active killer is made. When contact with the active killer is made, that strategy – and perhaps all the people in the room – probably have to go right out the window.

It’s no secret that I support law enforcement firearms training for vetted, volunteer civilians, but at the same time I don’t think there is any one answer to this problem of active killers in schools. Dan Marcou, Dick Fairburn, Glenn French and others have suggested sound strategies. I think ALICE also bears consideration.

As the saying goes, “When seconds count, cops are mere moments away.”

Doesn’t it make sense that schools have a somewhat more sophisticated policy in place than essentially playing hide-and-seek with active killers? I think so.

Check out these videos about the ALICE Program, and add your thoughts in the comments area below.

Stay safe my friends.

response options alice introduction

auburn university alice video

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.

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