ALICE guides schools’ responses to threat

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

Local School Resource Officer Levi Talkington, left, talks with Fergus High School Principal Jeff Elliott, right, about how teachers could respond to a broken classroom barricade last Friday at the high school.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

For many, there’s a link between the terms “active shooter” and “shelter in place.” In the last two years, however, Lewistown School District has worked to remove that connection. District leaders want to introduce a new strategy for dealing with armed intruders: ALICE.

 

A what, not a who

ALICE is a program taught by the ALICE Training Institute, a security training company. The business started out working with small schools, but has since expanded its clientele to include healthcare, business, higher education and religious organizations.

ALICE stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evaluate, a list of verbs focused on active response. The approach grabbed the attention of local School Resource Officer Levi Talkington, who’s seen many active-shooter school policies with a more passive approach.

Lewistown is no exception to the trend. The Lewistown School District’s Emergency Plan prescribes lockdowns in the case of intruders. The appropriate response is summarized as “locks, lights, out of sight.”

ALICE is wholly different. It abandons prescribed steps to focus on a person’s thought process when facing an active shooter or other threat.

Talkington described it as promoting situational awareness and constant reevaluation.

“We wanted to be more flexible for staff and students, depending on what the situation is,” he said.

ALICE provides trainees with a range of options, such as evacuation or barricading a room, and then has trainees think about how they think. Talkington said this approach is what allows trainees to adapt ALICE to the situation.

“It’s a little more specific for each classroom and each educator, and that’s what we liked about it,” he said. “It asks things like, where is it happening? Where are you? What students do you have?”

The training, Talkington said, has two goals: getting clear and buying time.

“With the ALICE program, the main thing is to evacuate,” he said. “If you can get out of the building, get out of the building.”

If that isn’t immediately possible, then the other goal comes into play, according to Fergus High School Principal Jeff Elliott.

“If you can just buy time for law enforcement to get there, that’s good,” he said.

 

A change in course

Talkington and Elliott are happy to give a long list of ALICE selling points: the program can be tailored for specific age groups, it provides more than one option for staff, it can be adapted to more than just an active shooter.

High up on that list is another item: ALICE is proactive instead of reactive.

It’s a phrase the ALICE Training Institute uses in its advertising, but both men say it’s also true. The idea is also something that’s been on the minds of school staff, especially as school shootings continue to headline.

“It is an uncomfortable topic, but it’s something that needs to be discussed, and we’re not immune,” Talkington said. “That’s what brings it to the forefront, but ALICE is for any kind of issues, like an angry parent.”

With 29 years as an educator, and nine in school administration, Elliott has been through emergency policies and active-shooter drills. ALICE’s approach came as somewhat of a relief.

“We’re happy,” he said. “It feels better to be proactive.”

The feeling is shared by Tim Majerus, Lewistown Junior High principal. Having been in his current position for eight years, and school administration for 19, he too has been through several emergency drills promoting “locks, lights, out of sight.”

“I just remember how frustrating it was to sit there behind a locked door and wait,” he said.

The Junior High started its ALICE training this month, and the program’s range of options is winning Majerus over. His experience as a new trainee is also making him reflect on the old “shelter in place” reaction.

“When you look at what happened in the Columbine library, those kids had that opportunity to leave and the training was, ‘Hide under a table,’” he said.

The inability to break away from drilled-in lists of steps during an emergency worries Majerus.

“We can’t be so practiced on our fire drills that we can’t go turn around and go somewhere else,” he said. “You are so well-trained, you don’t have to think about it, you instinctively react to it.”

Regardless of their effectiveness, Majerus said the repeated formulas of the past are creating a learning curving for teachers exposed to ALICE.

“[That’s] one thing that’s going to be something to address in our training, to quickly assess the situation and act,” he said.

Undoing embedded thinking has already started for Majerus and his staff, though. They’re already using ALICE to outline the possibilities they could face.

“Our safety team sits down and plans out, what does this look like for Lewistown Junior High,” he said. “You’ve got to give the teachers all of the scenarios possible.”

While critical, Majerus see ALICE struggling without one specific component.

“The most important part of all this is the rapport you’re building with kids, so kids know who to go to,” he said. “Building rapport, knowing students, having students feel comfortable coming to us: I think that is our true approach.”

 

A new approach, from top to bottom

The Lewistown School District hasn’t revised its Emergency Operating Plan since 2014. Superintendent Thom Peck said it’s a normal timeline for school districts’ written policies.

“Typically, they’re evaluated every five years,” he said. “That’s an Office of Public Instruction standard.”

Peck explained written policies are reevaluated on a rotating schedule, so everything is periodically updated but not simultaneously. The 2014 Emergency Plan, with its “locks, lights, out of sight” approach to school intruders, is part of the cycle, to be revisited in 2019.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “Anything on paper is a work in progress.”

How possible revisions will include ALICE is unclear, Peck said, but one factor will be how ALICE is viewed in relation to the current policy. Peck, for one, sees the program as expanding on the EOP instead of conflicting with it.

He confirmed the District has adopted the program, and now faces the challenges of training for a different approach.

ALICE’s adaption-based framework emphasizes a tailored reaction to situations, Peck explained. Because the program has trainees consider the abilities of individuals and students, as well as pros and cons of the specific building or room, he cannot teach ALICE with a single, all-staff meeting.

“It does make it more difficult, but it doesn’t make it less needed,” he said. “Sometimes the things that are most worthwhile are the hardest to do.”

Two schools have trained since ALICE’s adoption two years ago: Fergus High School and Lewistown Junior High, which is still currently in training. The program’s more active approach will be new for everyone, meaning students will also need to be taught.

Peck said there is no deadline to finish training the District schools. Teaching students about ALICE will come after staff trainings finish. Despite the uncertainty he sees as inherent with any change, Peck sees the program as an improvement.

“This is putting more common-sense decision making on our particular circumstances,” he said.

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