As a child grows, so grows the list of warnings.
Don’t run with scissors.
Don’t stick your fingers in the fan.
Don’t play in the street.
With the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings less than a year behind us, responsible adults are wrestling with the troubling concept of how to teach about violence in schools with simplicity and clarity without upsetting youngsters.
Some say students should learn to stand and fight as a last resort.
Others downplay resistance as impractical and emphasize evacuation or lockdown of the school in times of trouble.
The common link is that educators and police are talking frankly to students about the possibility of a gunman or other assailant attacking them in school.
Preparing for the worst
Many schools and police departments teach ALICE, an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. The curriculum, for which police officers are trained and certified, has a reputation for advocating violence on a would-be attacker.
That can be misleading, said Akron Patrolman Dan Bickett, one of the first local officers trained in ALICE.
“E stands for evacuate and we think that is the most important letter of the acronym,” he said. “Don’t just sit there, because you are really putting your life in someone else’s hands. If you do that, if the police show up and get the bad guy, we are going to be OK. If the bad guy gets to us before the police get here, we’re not going to be OK.”
When Akron Public Schools had the first Safety Day of the academic year on Sept. 4, it was evacuation that was emphasized and practiced.
Teaching students to fight back if cornered will come later.
Akron Public Schools officials are calling parents to meetings at the city’s high schools this week to learn about their plans.
“ALICE will teach staff and students how to react in the event an active shooter invades their secure area,” a letter sent to parents last week said. “Staff will be ready to listen carefully to the location and type of event, get to and/or remain in a secure area until it is safe to evacuate, should an armed intruder/active shooter invade their area, apply skills to distract and confuse, and as soon as it is safe to do so, evacuate.”
Danger of imagination
It’s the last resort — Counter — that can involve taking down an attacker and that prospect sparks students’ imagination.
“If there’s nothing they can do, they can’t run, they can’t get past them, we teach a technique called swarm where the class just kind of bum rushes the guy,” Bickett said.
In practice, it can be fun. Later in the year Bickett will again pretend to be an assailant and students will practice swarming him.
Bickett said after the practice last year, “I had bruises all over my arms. It was a rough month.”
As for how the students would respond in a real situation, Bickett is uncertain.
“It takes courage for kids to go at a guy with a gun,” he said. “I can tell you that if they are confronted with a life or death situation, some people might or might not. I don’t think you know how you are going to react until you are there.”
The good news is that situations like that are extremely rare. Akron officials say there has never been a shooting of any kind in the schools.
School officials hope new technology, particularly video and more secure doorways will continue to make confrontations less likely.
Jennifer Moff, principal of Innes middle school, said video in the hallways and entrances might allow her staff to watch an intruder as he walks down the hall, describing his route over the public address system and alerting classes on the best route of evacuation. There is the feeling that the attacker, also hearing his actions described on the public address system, might choose to flee.
A situation like that puts teachers in a position to make life and death decisions: Should they stay or leave the classroom? If they leave, which path to safety should the take?
They are taught how to barricade the door if they choose to stay.
ALICE principles will be taught by the city’s 16 school resource officers throughout the year at all the schools, but the training will be tailored for different age students, particularly elementary pupils.
Bickett likened the training for young children to “stranger danger,” a concept many children understand before they get to kindergarten.
“It’s going to be the same idea,” he said. “If a bad guy is trying to get you, run, scream, yell, bite, whatever you gotta do. We are really trying to get away from just the lockdown procedure, because in school shootings, the death rate of these kids is so great. … You can’t just sit there hiding in your classroom, hoping they don’t find you. You have to be active. You have to make some decisions.”
Officer Lauri Natko, the resource officer at Akron’s Innes middle school, said she also goes into the elementary school classrooms and “actually sits down on the little baby chairs.”
Once on their level, she will “talk to the teachers and kids about what to do if a bad guy comes into their building and wants to hurt them.”
Again, the key will be on evacuation.
“You are not going to want a group of third-graders throwing books at an intruder because our focus for them is getting out,” Natko said.
Police tactics change
Daniel J. Rambler, Akron’s director of student support services and security, said conventional thinking has changed since the Columbine High School shootings that killed 12 people in 1999. In that case, police waited for a Special Weapons and Tactics team to arrive. Precious minutes were lost.
Now an officer might be in the school. But whoever is the first lawman to arrive, the procedure is to go right in and confront the gunman.
“The quicker that you get someone to respond who is an officer, traditionally, historically, that’s when the incident’s over,” Rambler said. “There is traditionally not a gunfight with the police officers. That’s typically when the person kills [himself] or the person is shot by the police officer.”
ALICE can be controversial to some, especially the idea of having students turn against an attacker as a last resort.
Cuyahoga Falls police cover the Cuyahoga Falls and Woodridge school districts plus Walsh and Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy — 19 schools in all — but choose not to use the ALICE training.
“We have a safety plan in place,” Capt. Jack Davis said. “We actually had one before ALICE even existed. We’ve worked with the schools for the last 12 years working on a safety plan. … Really we do pretty much all of what ALICE is touting. The only problem we have is where it makes it sound like they are making a coordinated attack against a gunman.”
He said his staff also stresses evacuation.
“If push comes to shove, the best thing to do is get away from it,” he said. “If you can evacuate and get out, that’s great. So we are not telling anybody to cower in a corner and not protect yourself, but unless you are going to do a lot of training in the schools … it’s going to cause confusion.”
Interacting with students
Bickett, the school resource officer for Kent Roswell Middle School and Akron, said he and Natko spend far more time interacting with students than preparing for an outside attack.
“The main thing I want to emphasize is that it is important to be seen,” he said of his relationship with students.
When the SRO program started, the Akron Police Department let officers bid for jobs. It got few takers. Only half the positions were filled.
Now Bickett and Natko are happy they signed up. In addition to working days with no weekend shifts, a rarity for police officers, they enjoy working with kids.
They do their best to engage the students, striking up conversations, hanging out at places where students gather or where trouble might start, and doing what it takes to get their message across.
“It’s on a level where I can reach them,” Natko said. “Sometimes I have to be funny. Sometimes I have to ride a bike in the building to get their attention, to come down to their level and prove I’m human.”
It can bring results.
“If you develop a relationship with the kids, they might be more prone to say, ‘I can tell Officer Bickett,’ ” he said.
Cuyahoga Falls has only one school resource officer. Edward Dennis, to serve all of the Falls and Woodridge schools. Other officers visit the schools regularly on a less formal basis.
Because he is responsible for 19 schools, Dennis said he might have less contact with students than an SRO dedicated to a single building. Nevertheless, interacting with the young people is a joy.
“It’s a blast,” he said. “I’ve just been around kids forever. It’s been enjoyable to be able to make a difference in some of their lives and change some of the things they look at. More and more, you treat them with respect, they give it right back to you.”
Steven Amos, a former Cuyahoga Falls police officer who is advising Woodridge Superintendent Walter Davis, said early resistance to having an armed police officer in the schools has subsided.
“As time passed and people were educated what an SRO is, then the acceptability became 100 percent,” Amos said. “And as for the teachers’ reluctance that was there, I can’t think of any teacher that wouldn’t love to have them there every single day.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.