What ALICE Looks Like From the Front Line

In the early ’70s, I remember folding my tiny body under my wooden desk in Mrs. Bonar’s first-grade class at Central Elementary School. Crouch under the desk, pull your little chair against your chest, and lay your little head on the seat of the chair — that was the air raid drill protocol.

My 6-year-old mind couldn’t understand how this miniature wooden desk was going to save me from the nuclear bomb the USSR could drop on us at any moment. My young mind couldn’t understand why somebody who didn’t even know us would want to kill us. School was about learning to read and write, add and subtract. It was unnerving to also realize school was about learning to protect ourselves from evil people who wanted to kill us.

My parents reassured me I was not going to die from a Soviet nuke anytime during my childhood. Luckily, they were right.

Now, here I sit again, in a school, and my 50-year-old mind still can’t understand why somebody would want to kill schoolchildren. The danger students face today is much more sinister than what I experienced decades ago. My killer was faceless, unknown, a continent away. Today, the killer could be a community member or worse, a classmate. Air raid drills have been replaced by active shooter drills.

According to a New York Times article published the day after the Parkland school shooting, since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in which 20 children were killed, 239 school shootings have occurred in our country, with 438 Americans having been shot, 138 of them killed. In just the first 45 days of this year, there have been 18 school shootings; that’s one school shooting every 2.5 days. The frightening new reality is that schoolchildren must deal with the possibility of being killed at school.

As a result, schools around the nation must find ways to help their students handle an active shooter situation. For the past two years, John Marshall High School has been using ALICE training to accomplish that goal. Assistant principal Geno Polsinelli was trained in this approach and then trained the school’s teachers and staff.

“This procedure is a proactive rather than passive approach to handling intruders and crisis situations in our school. ALICE gives our faculty, staff and students the tools to do something in time of need. Whether it is locking a door and hiding, barricading, or evacuating,” Polsinelli said.

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. The first strategy, Alert, ensures students and staff are kept notified of the immediate threat. All individuals at the school are encouraged to use texting, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms to convey information that could be used to make decisions about whether to barricade a room or attempt to evacuate the school. This kind of messaging can also be used to inform first responders and parents who need to be alerted to the situation. In addition to this, the school will provide official alerts through the public address system and handheld radios provided to teachers and administrators in the high school.

The next strategy is Lockdown, if it makes sense to do so. The initial alert will include information about where the active shooter is located within the school. Teachers will immediately decide if the shooter’s location is far enough away that students can be evacuated or if they are in the danger zone and must remain in the classroom. Teachers who determine it is best to stay in the room will ensure the door is locked, cover the window in the door and proceed to barricade the room. Desks, tables, chairs, books, anything can be used to place in front of the locked door to act as a barricade to slow the shooter down if he is trying to enter the room or shoot through the window. While the class is in lockdown and has an additional barrier between them and the door, there is constant communication that will determine any further decisions.

The Inform strategy is the key to the ALICE approach because it allows teachers to make the best decisions possible for their students. Video surveillance throughout the school will be monitored, and school personnel will continually let teachers know the direction the shooter is moving, the floor the shooter is on, what the shooter is wearing, etc. As the shooter moves, so does the danger zone. Classrooms that had once decided to lock down and barricade may choose to evacuate based on the real-time information being received.

Students and teachers who determine they must remain locked down and barricaded may have to employ the Counter strategy if the shooter is working his way through the locked door and the barricade. Students and teachers are instructed to create noise, movement, some kind of distraction that can catch the intruder off guard. It is fair game to throw books, laptops, whatever students can get their hands on to reduce the intruder’s ability to fire a weapon or at least reduce the shooter’s ability to shoot accurately. This strategy is a last resort, and because it is such, students and teachers will do whatever they can to survive.

The last strategy is Evacuate. It is hoped that this strategy can be employed first, and students can avoid the lockdown altogether, but unfortunately that will not always be the case. But with the continuing stream of information, the goal is to spot a window of time where it is safe to quickly evacuate the classroom and the building.

Many high schools use this type of approach or something similar. Rick Jones, assistant superintendent of Ohio County Schools said Wheeling Park is using something similar to the ALICE approach, and he also mentioned the value of having a school resource officer as another layer of protection for students. “These types of approaches teach everybody in our schools to be more active in a dangerous situation as opposed to sitting in a corner. Along with these types of strategies, we rely heavily on our school resources officers for our safety, and we should all be very grateful to have them in our schools,” Jones said.

John Marshall High School Resource Officer and Marshall County Deputy Shawn Mayle said oftentimes, students are the first to be alerted of potential dangers because of what they see on social media or hear in the school or community. “Students can be a great help in keeping their schools safe. If they see something, they should say something. Even if they don’t think it’s important, it may be. If they report it, law enforcement and school officials can investigate and determine if a threat exists,” Mayle said.

Jonna Kuskey is an English teacher at John Marshall High School. She was named the 2017 James Moffett Award winner by the National Council of Teachers of English and the third place winner of the 2017 Penguin Random House Foundation Teacher Awards for Literacy.