Early this year, 19-year-old Oakley resident Tristan Amir Curl made a series of threats against students and staff at Freedom High, and while he was arrested without incident, the potential for violence underscored the need for training and preparation to deal with active-shooter or intruder circumstances on school grounds.
At the same time, the Brentwood Police Department (BPD) was working with the Liberty Union High School District and the Brentwood Union School District to implement a program called ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) intended to teach school personnel the latest strategies for responding to a deadly threat on campus.
“ALICE is option-based,” explained BPD Officer Mitch Brouillette. “In the past, teachers have been taught basically one thing, and that’s lockdown: turn off the lights, shut the door, lock the door and, sometimes, get under a desk. We need to do more things with how we’re training our teachers to react.”
Brouillette, a school resource officer (SRO) at Heritage High School, said that on his first day as an SRO he began planning how he would respond to a threat on campus. However, he soon realized that the school staff did not know how to face a threat, and he made it his responsibility to find a way to get the teachers trained.
“Statistically they’ll say seven out of 10 people killed in a school shooting die from a head shot,” said Brouillette. “You talk about these people who do these incidents and how they have no formalized training other than online training – they play these video games. But they’re able to go in and kill seven out of 10 people with a head shot on a school campus, and that’s because all we’ve been trained to do is get down behind a desk.”
Greg Crane developed the ALICE training program and is the founder of the ALICE Training Institute. A former police officer and SWAT team member, the school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 convinced him that a new strategy for responding to active-shooter situations was needed. Columbine proved to Crane that the common practice of locking down and waiting for a police response was no longer an adequate reaction to a deadly threat.
“Columbine was a smack in the face of reality,” said Crane. “The police actually have a very hard time getting there in time to have a significant impact on the outcome of these events. No matter how hard you train, you have to get there ... We pioneered the movement from a static, passive response plan to a proactive, options-based program.”
Under the ALICE methodology, reaction to a threat is dynamic based on the particular circumstances faced by each teacher. If a shooter is close, the best response may be to lock down, barricade the door and, in a worst-case scenario, prepare to confront the shooter. If a shooter is on a different part of campus, the teacher may move students away from the threat without relying on fixed rendezvous points.
“The biggest thing we have to realize is more important than our evacuation point is (the need) to get away from the threat,” said LUHSD Superintendent Eric Volta. “We’ll round up the kids later. We’ll find the kids eventually. We just need to make sure they leave campus, they leave where the threat is.”
While Crane reports that ALICE training has been conducted in more than 4,000 school districts, the program does have its detractors. Much of the criticism pertains to the program’s reference to countering active threats. Critics have questioned the wisdom of sending elementary or middle school students to confront an armed intruder.
“ALICE may be well intended, but it’s not well thought out,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Service in a Mother Jones article by Deanna Pan. “You can’t get a group of middle-school kids to simultaneously agree on chicken nuggets or pizza in the cafeteria for lunch much less make a split-second decision to start throwing items at an armed intruder.”
Crane argues that in a desperate situation like a shooter in a classroom, students creating chaos makes it more difficult for a shooter to operate effectively, and that may save lives. Essentially, doing something is better than doing nothing.
ALICE training for the staff of both districts is comprised of three modules. The first is a lecture that describes the evolution of response strategies and uses video and audio samples to illustrate real-world examples of school shootings that can be difficult to watch or hear and Brouillette admitted that the training pulls no punches. The second module is an online training component.
“It’s the best online training I have ever seen in all of my time in education and the military because it was very interactive,” said Liberty Principal Heather Harper. “It wasn’t just sit and listen to somebody read what was on the screen. You had to interact with it. You had to select options. It was scenario based. It was great training.”
Only Liberty has completed the final module to date, though all Brentwood schools will complete it before the end of the year. In the last module, small groups of teachers are taken through five active-shooter scenarios by BPD officers who have been certified as ALICE trainers. In each scenario, one teacher plays the role of the shooter and is armed with a gun that fires marble-sized foam pellets. The rest respond to the scenarios in ways ranging from simply locking down the classroom to more proactive solutions including evacuation and barricading the classroom door to countering the shooter by barraging him or her with objects, in this case, foam balls. At the conclusion of each scenario, the instructor records the number of victims and collects feedback from the participants.
“The training definitely made me feel better prepared for an active-shooter event,” said Patty Galindo, a teacher at Liberty who participated in the ALICE training simulation. “It made me think critically of my surroundings, possible escape routes, items to use for barricading the door, and ways to distract a shooter. These are all things I have thought of in the past, but physically participating in the simulations made it feel more real.”
Brentwood City Manager Gus Vina said that, in today’s environment, the city has a responsibility to ensure that its employees are prepared to deal with active-shooter situations. To that end, Brentwood has committed to providing ALICE training to approximately 400 city workers. Additionally, the Oakley Union Elementary School District is partnering with the Oakley Police Department to do similar training in all of its school sites.
“We care about the community,” said Brouillette. “That’s what it is. We’re ahead of the game. We’re in a good place compared to a lot of other communities. That says something about the superintendents, Dana Eaton and Eric Volta. They’re not cutting any corners. I just thinks it’s so beneficial for everyone.”