Twenty teachers huddled in the back of a classroom. Lights out, door locked, a decision was made. Within seconds, the teachers had every desk in the room pressed up against the door – a barricade was formed. A minute later, the door shook violently, but the barricade held.
Round two. Without a barricade, the door banged open. An officer entered, shouting and throwing red balls like bullets. In an instant, a few teachers reacted, taking her down by the waist. “I still have my gun!” she informed them, perhaps more kindly than a true intruder would have. A staff member stomped on the hand waving the feigned gun. Safe.
Down the hall, another police officer barged into a classroom, firing an airsoft gun at the ankles of a group of teachers armed with scissors. A short time later, a group of staff members were caught by an “intruder” while attempting an escape out a side door.
This was the training Old Rochester Regional High School’s staff went through last Wednesday in preparation for the school’s new lockdown procedure. Police officers from surrounding districts acted as intruders throughout the afternoon exercise as ORR’s staff learned how to react. It was realistic; it was intense.
“They kept using the word ‘empowerment.’ You’re empowering. You can make a choice. You can flee; you can try to get those kids out of the building,” reflected Merrideth Wickman, an English teacher at ORR. “No rules apply, meaning your ultimate goal is survival.”
The program is called ALICE – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Choices, Evacuate – explained Michael Parker, ORRHS’s assistant principal. Originally created by a concerned police officer in Texas roughly ten years ago, ALICE has since spread across America. The program gives teachers something the old lockdown procedure never did: choices.
“In the traditional lockdown, you shut the door. You lock the door. You pull the curtains. You hide. There are no options,” said Parker, “In the ALICE program, you still do a traditional lockdown, but then you make a decision on what to do based on the situation after that.”
This “enhanced lockdown procedure” allows teachers to decide when it’s necessary to remain in lockdown, barricade the door, counterattack, or evacuate. If an intruder were to enter the building, an average of four to six minutes would pass before the police could arrive and enter using their own swipe cards. A lot can happen during these crucial minutes.
“The key part is you have to assess it personally to decide your course of action based on where the intruder is in the building,” recalled Wickman. As an intruder walks the halls, he or she can be tracked using the school’s camera system. Then Parker, Principal Michael Devoll, Campus Aid Bill Tilden, or any secretary can announce the intruder’s position over the loud speakers. This allows the individuals in lockdown to make educated decisions.
“I think this is a much better situation. I would much rather do this than be sitting ducks,” said English teacher Kate Ribeiro. Her only criticism of the new system was that she felt all teachers should have the code to the loud speakers, allowing everyone to share information in case of an emergency.
Before the ALICE training simulations last Wednesday, the staff first went through a general presentation explaining the program. The presentation included studies on how ALICE would have benefitted schools of past tragedies, such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, if the enhanced lockdown procedure had been utilized.
“They showed awful graphs about how many people could’ve been saved,” said Ribeiro, recounting how there was an exit in the library of Columbine High School, where many students were killed. Instead of running to safety, the students simply hid.
That’s not to say the traditional lockdown procedure is completely useless – it’s just better suited for keeping threats outside school walls. Once the threat is inside the building, ALICE becomes the most logical program to utilize.
“There are pros to the regular lockdown,” admitted Parker. “It does keep everybody secure and safe in one place. The pro to the enhanced lockdown system is that you can get people to get out of harm’s way.”
Once briefed, ORR’s staff was split into groups of 15 to 20 people in order to simulate ALICE procedures. They were given the option to opt-out and simply watch the procedure, but as Wickman laughed, “We didn’t know what was coming, so we didn’t know if we wanted to opt-out.”
They caught on soon enough. When it came to barricades, the staff learned that it takes only seconds for twenty people to push all the desks in a room to one corner. The door could also be secured with something as simple as a wooden wedge, if you had enough, or with a strap tied between the door handle and something stationary.
When the police officers began acting as intruders, the staff learned the last resort tactic: counterattack. “You’ll never look at your classroom the same again, because you start looking for weapons,” said Wickman, quoting an officer from her group. “You don’t know what you have right in your own means that you could use as a weapon.”
Anything from a textbook to a pair a scissors could be used in self-defense. “Hopefully we never have to do this, but it makes more sense than just sitting in a dark room in a corner,” admitted Ribeiro.
It was in this phase of the training that each staff member’s fight or flight instincts showed. Wickman noted how some of her colleagues always ran toward the danger, while others were more likely to hold back.
Ribeiro said some of her colleagues are also in the military, so they’ve been trained to go against their natural reactions. “Your natural instinct, first, is to run away, or cower. When you’re in the military, your natural instinct is to run towards that danger,” they told her.
These types of personality differences have an impact on what a teacher decides to do in a crisis. Some may have a clear mind during an emergency, while others may freeze. If the latter situation were to occur, teachers were told that it’s okay to accept a student’s advice. In a moment of fear, a student may see an option that the teacher does not.
On the other hand, if a student were to freeze and entirely refuse to follow instructions, the teacher may not sacrifice the class for the sake of one. It’s the student’s choice to stay behind if the class is evacuating. This is one of the most difficult situations the staff was forced to consider. “A teacher’s instinct is to stay and protect that child, I think,” said Wickman, noting the difficulty of that type of situation.
As a teacher, the fear of making the wrong decision is terrifying. They were instructed to just follow their instincts to decide what would be best for the class. The ultimate goal is to stay alive.
Despite the intensity of Wednesday’s training, the ALICE program primarily had a positive response. The staff recognized the empowerment behind having options in case of an emergency. Only a few felt uncomfortable with the dramatics of the training.
“Someone is always going to be insulted that they’re bringing this into our school,” Ribeiro said, “but I’d rather insult a handful of people and feel like I’ve been empowered with the knowledge on how to protect my kids.”
With these positive responses from the staff, Parker feels Wednesday’s training went very well. “The nice thing about it is that we have time between now and next year for teachers to have questions, voice their concerns,” he said. “We’re going to train the students after the seniors leave, and have it ready to roll as a full-blown new system in the fall.”
Spring training for the underclassmen will be primarily informational, with enhanced lockdown drills beginning next fall.
In other news, both the senior and junior class held some fun events last week. The senior class had their annual senior breakfast at the VFW last Tuesday, where they enjoyed a catered breakfast in celebration of their last week of school. On Friday, the junior class held their junior semi dance and overnight party at the high school.
By Renae Reints