For years, the standard instructions to teachers and students if a Columbine-style attacker launched a rampage at their school were the same: lock down and hide.
But now, in Canton and in a growing number of schools nationwide, police and school officials are training teachers, staff, and eventually even students that in some cases they should fight against armed attackers.
School officials in Canton quietly adopted a program this year called ALICE — alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate – and began training school personnel at Canton High School and Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton. They are trained to make active decisions, such as barricading classroom doors; coordinating on-the-spot evacuations; and, if all else fails, throwing objects and using body weight to topple a shooter.
“The critics say you’re teaching little kids how to fight? No. There are age-appropriate ways to go about this kind of training,” said Canton police Detective Chip Yeaton, a school resource officer and father of four who said he is committed to spreading the program. “We’re teaching them options. So far, the best level of training students have had is to go lock the doors and wait. And the school shootings continue to happen, and young people are dying. We need to change the philosophy.”
Superintendent Jeffrey Granatino said in an interview earlier this week that Canton’s public schools are in the “early stages” of implementing the program. Some staff have been trained, and the rest are likely to learn the program over the next month or so. After that, he said, the school system plans to teach students from elementary to high school using techniques such as lockdown drills, which he said would be “just like fire drills.”
“We want to make sure we are not putting kids in harm’s way,” Granatino said. “This program teaches that countering an intruder is the last resort when there are no other options. It is about providing strategies in their tool box.”
In school systems across the country, a typical lockdown procedure involves sounding the alarm, alerting police, locking doors, and staying put within a secure room. Law enforcement recommended this approach years ago as a way to minimize chaos for police arriving on the scene. The ALICE program departs from this model by emphasizing situational decision-making in which individuals decide to barricade doors, run, throw things at the attacker, and even physically attack the armed intruder if other measures have failed.
Kenneth Trump — president of National School Safety and Security Services, a private, Cleveland-based school safety consulting corporation — criticized the program as an inappropriate quick fix to a complex problem.
“They’re soft-pedaling this program by using terms like ‘enhanced lockdown’ and ‘options,’ ” he said. “What they’re not telling parents is: We’re teaching your kids to stand up and throw things and attack an armed intruder. If parents were told candidly what is involved, they’d be flying off the hook in protest.
“Ultimately, the bottom line is: Which parent wants your kid in middle school to be the first to stand up and get shot?” Trump said, adding: “More districts might pick it up until the first kid stands up and gets killed, and then the parents are going to say, ‘Who taught my kid to do that?’ ”
On Thursday, after a reporter interviewed school officials and Yeaton, members of the Canton School Committee asked to hear more details about the program at a Nov. 15 meeting.
“Truthfully, we’re a little behind the information curve on all of this,” committee chairman John Bonnanzio said Thursday.
“It is something different, quite different, than we’ve seen before,’’ Bonnanzio said. “At the very least we need to be able to ask some questions. We think the community should be able to weigh in, too. “Is this age-appropriate?” he said. “Maybe it is thought out completely, but we need details. Maybe giving these kinds of instructions to children in the high school, as opposed to the elementary schools, is a better idea.”
In an earlier interview, Granatino said he informed the panel about the program, but that their formal approval was unnecessary. “We’re educators, and police are safety experts,” he said. “And when they have strategies they feel are in the best interest of children it is important to listen to them.”
Yeaton is president of the Massachusetts Juvenile Police Officers’ Association, which he described as “leading the charge” to bring Massachusetts schools new, proactive options to confront attackers. On Nov. 14, the group will host ALICE training with registrants, mainly police and school officials, from area districts, including Canton, Concord, Dedham, Framingham, Franklin, New Bedford, Wellesley, Westborough, Winchester, and even from New Hampshire and Connecticut, he said.
“This is a work in progress in Massachusetts,” he said. “Is every school district going to buy into it? No. There are still communities that have this old-school mentality that school shootings don’t happen here and it’s not going to happen to us so why change things.”
Approximately 300 US schools, or about 1.5 million students, have adopted the ALICE program, said its creator, Greg Crane, who flew in from Texas to speak at school security conferences in Norfolk and Worcester counties.
“We are not teaching people to fight gunmen,” he said. “We are teaching people to survive gun attacks. We know that in today’s world, students might need to help themselves. They need to know how to do more than sit in a corner or behind a locked door and wait for help.”
A few years ago, Crane introduced the program in Massachusetts after Wilmington police Lieutenant Scott Sencabaugh — a unit commander for the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, which includes more than 50 police and sheriff departments in Middlesex and Essex counties — invited him to speak at an event. In a brief interview, Sencabaugh said he was a “huge supporter” of the program. Indeed, the program has steadily developed a following among law enforcement, Crane said. “Ten years ago, I was thrown out of places. Now I’m invited everywhere.”
“We know there is not a high probability that we can get there in time to stop mass carnage,” he said. “We know shootings happen quickly and they’re over fast. Folks who find themselves in that level of danger need options.”
Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey said he is a firm believer in educating young people to make an informed decision. “Is it better to provide kids with no training and no discussion and no preparation?’’ Morrissey said. “This program might not be right for every school district, but with the increased violence across the country, I applaud schools for taking active steps to keep kids safe.”
Meg Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.