Jennifer Hensel, holding a portrait of her daughter, Sandy Hook School shooting victim Avielle Rose Richman, stands with her husband Jeremy Richman at a news conference at Edmond Town Hall in Newtown, Conn., Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. One month after the mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the parents joined a grassroots initiative called Sandy Hook Promise to support solutions for a safer community. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
In the wake of last year’s fatal shooting of 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many schools are no longer relying solely on the traditional “lockdown” response to an armed intruder and are teaching students and teachers to fight back.
In the past, most teachers were told to lock classroom doors and hide their students if a gunman entered the school. But over the summer, the federal Department of Education endorsed a more aggressive approach, encouraging teachers to evacuate their kids from the building, barricade doors, and even “incapacitate the shooter,” if possible.
Now, school districts are implementing drills — alongside fire, tornado and other safety drills — to practice this new response. Children as young as 6 are told over the loudspeaker that a “bad guy” with a gun is in the school, and then they practice what they would do if that really happened.
Some schools have opted for uber-realistic “active shooter” drills that have angered some parents and teachers. Masked men broke into Pine Eagle Charter School in Halfway, Ore., last April and fired blanks at a group of teachers in an unannounced drill that left some teachers livid.
But federal and local education officials counter that school shootings from Virginia Tech to Columbine to Sandy Hook, though rare, show that the country’s millions of teachers and students must be trained to survive an attack. Sandy Hook was a wake-up call for many that even elementary schools needed to be prepared.
Kindergarteners through sixth-graders at a school in Gateway, Ohio, were told to throw objects at a shooter if he enters the classroom to distract him. Playing loud music or making loud noises are other ways to distract a gunman. Teachers, meanwhile, are encouraged to physically overwhelm an armed attacker if possible.
Some safety experts question this change in direction, arguing that the tried-and-true lockdown works, and that more aggressive tactics could leave teachers and kids hurt.
“Lockdowns do work,” said Ken Trump, a school safety consultant. “People have preyed on the emotions after Sandy Hook to marginalize and minimalize lockdowns.”
The Department of Education changed its guidance on “active shooter” training this summer, citing a study of 41 active shooter incidents that found adults were able to stop a shooter 13 of those times by physically restraining him. (The department stresses that it should not be in any teacher’s job description to launch a counterattack against a gunman.)
“There are three basic options: run, hide, or fight,” the department’s new guidance says. “You can run away from the shooter, seek a secure place where you can hide and/or deny the shooter access, or incapacitate the shooter to survive and protect others from harm.”
Some have been able to survive school shootings by going beyond locking the door and hiding. In the Virginia Tech shooting, for example, some students were able to survive by jumping out the window. Others saved themselves by barricading the door to their classroom in addition to locking it.
Greg Crane, the founder of a security services company that trains people how to survive shootings, is one of the leaders of the movement against a lockdown-only approach in schools. He says the more aggressive training is a way to give people more “options” in a shooting situation beyond hiding and hoping for the best.
Crane created a program called ALICE, which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate. He founded the program 12 years ago, shortly after the Columbine shooting, and his training has reached 2 million students over that time.
In the past year — in response to Sandy Hook — those students have been getting younger.
“For years a lot of the school districts were keeping training to middle school and above,” Crane said. “What Sandy Hook did was move it down to the elementary levels.”
All 32 elementary schools in Akron, Ohio, are currently training its students in the technique. Four times a year, elementary school students will be told over the loudspeaker that a “bad guy” is in the building, and classrooms will either evacuate, or lock and barricade the door.
“It’s a safety drill. We’re not trying to scare kids,” said Dan Rambler, student support services director of the Akron school district.
Kids are taught to barricade the door with furniture or whatever is available to make it harder for a shooter to get in. They’re also told it’s OK to run away or fight back against someone who is attacking them. “The most prevalent place and opportunity for people to be killed ends up being the classrooms that are just locked down,” Rambler said.
The eventual goal is for students and teachers to be prepared for the worst.
“We know what to do when the fire alarm goes off — why do people not know what to do when it’s gunshots going off?” Crane asked.