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School district signs contract extension for active shooter training

ESCONDIDO —  The age of mass shootings in schools has ushered in a new reality, with teachers and staff preparing for the worst case scenario: having a shooter in their midst.

With that in mind, at its Aug. 15 meeting, the Escondido Union School District signed a contract extension with a company specializing in active shooter training drills. Passed on the consent calendar, the district resigned a new three-year deal with the Ohio-based ALICE Training Institute for $35,250, or $11,750 per year. All district employees will receive an ALICE training, while students will participate in drills.

Michael Taylor, assistant superintendent of business services for the Escondido Union School District, said that the goal of using ALICE is “to prepare for that reality” of mass shooting incidents.

“No particular incident prompted our signing with ALICE in 2016,” said Taylor. “We knew that as an organization we could be vulnerable, so we wanted to get ahead of the question, What are you doing to decrease that vulnerability.”

ALICE stands for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.” On its website, the company says it has trained over 1 million individuals in all 50 states.

The firm was formerly known as Response Options, created in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, which saw 13 people killed and the two perpetrators commit suicide. Beyond schools and higher education institutions, ALICE trains law enforcement, workplaces, government agencies and places of worship.

The company’s founder, Greg Crane, said he created the company because law enforcement generally cannot get to an active shooter scene until the damage is already done.

“This led me to research how the schools were preparing and what they were instructing personnel to do prior to police arrival,” Crane says in one of the company’s videos. “What I learned was that in almost every school in the country, there was only one protocol: lockdown, a mandated secured in-place response.”

ALICE says it aims to end the “one-size-fits-all response” to shooting events.

“We want all Americans to have the knowledge and skills to survive when shots are fired,” explains its website. “We can achieve this by training as many people as possible and implementing training in drill form. We have seen the successful results of fire drills. It’s time to start anticipating manmade disasters.”

But ALICE has also faced criticism from those who have participated in its drills in states nationwide.

In Indiana and Pennsylvania, teachers ended up injured while doing an ALICE training after being shot by plastic pellets during a shooting simulation. And in Alabama and Wisconsin, when it was reported that the ALICE training paradigm was used to teach subjects to throw canned goods at an active shooter, one school security expert ridiculed the exercise.

That expert, Ken Trump, runs the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services. Trump formerly worked in the youth gang unit for Cleveland City Schools and as a school security director for a suburban Cleveland school.

Trump says that he believes ALICE relies on trumped up fears, while criticizing the techniques because he says they are not proven to work in any academic literature.

“It preys on the emotions of today’s active shooter frenzy that is spreading across the nation,” wrote Trump of ALICE. “Using unproven tactics in child-oriented settings fails to acknowledge and integrate the high risk of doing so by skimming past age, developmental, special needs and other implications of such unproven tactics.”

In fact, when Crane first taught the ALICE method in his own classroom in Texas when the firm was called Response Options, he was reassigned to a different school because complaints poured in that the method went too far.

The school district sent over 8,500 letters to parents apologizing, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The Associated Press reported that the letter was signed by every principal in the school district, except for Lisa Crane, the wife of Greg Crane and now an executive at ALICE.

Youth psychology experts have also knocked the practice.

“Participation in live drills and mock funerals, even when participants are fully informed, is likely to cause significant distress and psychological harm for some participants,” opines a 2017 paper co-written by David Schonfeld, a professor University of Southern California and Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists. “Negative responses may become exacerbated among those with prior losses or trauma, anxiety or stress disorders, or other behavioral health problems.”

But the Escondido Union School District is “conscious that we do not want to build Fortress America on our campuses,” said Taylor.

“We tailored our ALICE training to make sure that we do not traumatize our employees and students,” Taylor continued. “We are very conscious about that. If you opt for training that causes trauma, then it becomes counterproductive.”

Taylor added that the district is careful in how it trains its kids, as well, while noting that it also does online training and not active-shooter training with faculty and staff. Kids, too, do not partake in simulated active shooter training.

“We’ve tailored the ALICE training to help meet the needs of and be sensitive to the vulnerabilities that our staff and students might have,” said Taylor. “We conduct age-appropriate drills; we tailor the training and the lockdown drills based on the age of the students.”

ALICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.