Canton police chief allays fears about ALICE program

The Canton police chief soothed school officials’ and parents’ concerns about a controversial new protocol for responding to attacks in schools, and plans are moving ahead to implement the program.

At a School Committee meeting Tuesday, Chief Kenneth N. Berkowitz also said he will ask Town Meeting in May to provide funding for more police officers in schools.

“Recent events speak for themselves,” Berkowitz said, referring to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and other recent tragedies. “Our world is getting less safe, not more safe.”

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The Canton school district is among the first in the area to implement the program, called ALICE, which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate. Developed by Greg and Lisa Crane of Texas, a police officer and retired educator, respectively, the program had come under criticism at previous meetings.

The most controversial aspect was the “counter” element, which encourages students and staff to blockade doors, throw items at an attacker, or otherwise actively respond to an intruder.

At Tuesday’s meeting, attended by about 20 residents, Berkowitz and Detective Chip Yeaton, Canton’s school resource officer, stressed that such a response would be the last resort for a student or staff member.

Greg Crane, who attended the session with his wife, said they had developed the plan because police procedures to lock down school buildings don’t give students and staff the options needed in a life-or-death situation.

“I was one of the folks that was supposed to get there in time; Columbine was a wake-up call that we couldn’t do that,” he said of the 1999 shootings in Colorado. “By the time the call comes in, there are already casualties going on.”

Berkowitz confirmed that, up to now, Canton’s protocol has involved alerting responders and locking down the school building until police could arrive. Those are the first two components of ALICE.

“It’s served us for the time we’ve had it, but it’s time it was improved,” Berkowitz said.

That is where the inform, counter, and evacuate components would come in, he said.

The school’s public address system would be used to inform the school’s population of the description and whereabouts of an intruder or other emergency as it happened, Yeaton said.

“This keeps not only the few people in the know; it keeps the whole entire building abreast of what is going on and ultimately enhances the options they may have,” he said.

Berkowitz acknowledged the controversy that had arisen around the “counter” element.

In most cases, a counter would consist of blockading a door and making it more difficult for an intruder to enter a classroom, Berkowitz said. But he added that students and staff members would also have other options as a last resort.

“We’re teaching people to give themselves a fighting chance to survive in the end rather than lining up for a firing squad,” Berkowitz said. “Because having a lockdown without a counter option to it – that’s what we’re doing.”

He added that “evacuate” was the much preferred option, which takes advantage of a person’s natural response to danger, Berkowitz said.

“It’s instinctual – human behavior is to move away from danger,” he said. “What we’re teaching with lockdown is counter to their own natural behaviors.”

Following the presentation, School Committee chairman John Bonnanzio said his primary concern was still with the counter. While it could work with several 17- or 18-year-old boys tackling an intruder, he said, most schoolchildren are much younger.

Berkowitz responded that the idea is to change the mindset of students and teachers, from sitting on the floor to actively responding and making decisions about what to do when faced with an attacker.

Berkowitz also said he’ll speak at Town Meeting to try to fund more school resource officers. He received support for this idea from parent Levence Eutsay and School Committee member Reuki B. Schutt.

But the chief cautioned that there will never be enough police to completely protect the schools. He pointed out that Yeaton, the one officer at Canton High School, can cover only one door or one hallway.

“It’s not going to be something we can law-enforce out of our society,” Berkowitz said. “It’s much deeper.”

One Canton parent, Suzanne Hegland, had characterized the ALICE program as “counsel[ing] your kid to charge an armed killer” in an essay she wrote for the Huffington Post in November.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Hegland said she was relieved after seeing Berkowitz’s presentation, but was still uncomfortable with the name ALICE because it placed “counter” before “evacuate.”

“It doesn’t matter how big you are if somebody has a gun,” Hegland said. “Most of these school shootings have been with semiautomatic weapons.”

School Committee member Robert W. Golledge Jr. agreed with Hegland about the name of the program, but supported its spirit.

“We need to be careful about the language we use as this moves forward,” said Golledge, adding that the name could become “a distraction.”

School Committee members encouraged Berkowitz, Yeaton, and Superintendent Jeffrey Granatino to continue implementing the program.

No further information sessions about the program have been scheduled.

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