ALICE & Run-Hide-Fight Training: Teaching Students to Attack Gunmen

What sounds like good theory and satisfies surface-level emotional needs is more complex, expert says

Training of school staff, who are legally and morally responsible for the safety of children, should be the focus.

Teachers, administrators, school police and security officers, and other staff  should continue to take the primary lead for protecting students.

Should schools train secondary and elementary students to throw objects and physically attack armed intruders in their classroom?

ALICE Training, Run-Hide-Fight, and Similar Programs Generate Controversy and Debate

The debate grows as a number of current and former self-defense trainers, individuals with military background, and some School Resource Officers and others in law enforcement advocate for this approach.  This is often referred to as ALICE Training, where ALICE stands for Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate or run-hide-fight, a federal Homeland Security Department program originally created for use in workplace settings. We respect the individuals and organizations putting forth these theories, but it is our opinion that the concepts are well-intended but not well-though-out for preK-12 school settings.

ALICE, run-hide-fight, and other similar programs offer little-to-nothing new with alerts and lockdowns, and schools are already being trained to have evacuation plans.  The idea of “inform” questionably assumes that someone in the school will be able to visually monitor all of the suspects while simultaneously “informing” or communicating their whereabouts to everyone in the building. Those who understand preK-12 school security know that the majority of schools do not have comprehensive camera systems for monitoring and tracking active shooters (or anyone else) and there are risks in the implementation of this theory.

The controversial issues rise over the Counter component of ALICE, or the fight component of run-hide-fight, which advocates training children to try to “distract” and “confuse” armed suspects by throwing items and attacking the heavily armed gunman.  Many educators, law enforcement officers, parents and school safety specialists do not support this proposed approach for “training” students in preK-12 school settings.

This question was posed to school safety expert, Ken Trump, by Fox News Channel producers in December of 2008 in response to a Massachusetts school district that was considering such training options with children as young as 10 years old. Ironically, the Texas school district that was one of the first, if not the first, to advance this concept reversed its decision back in 2006 according to an AP report (see section below on school leaders rejecting the approach).

Ken Trump takes a deeper analysis of these concepts and the questions which arise in the following sections below:

Preying on Emotions May Make Theory Sound Good, But Implementation is More Complex

Recent years have brought out discussions of arming teachers, bulletproof backpacks, and now flying textbooks. Such proposals often prey on the emotions of anxious parents and educators looking for a “quick fix” to the complex issues of school safety and emergency planning.

To put that expectation on young, emotional, scared, frightened children is really a slippery slope.  It has a high risk and higher probability of escalating a situation than it would to neutralize the situation. They are asking them to make some quite serious judgments that even trained adults are challenged to make.  It is an unrealistic and highly risky expectation and burden to put on kids.

Advocates of such training are quick to claim that opponents of the training are forcing children to become “sitting ducks” waiting to be slaughtered.  While this emotional appeal obviously strikes the chord of anxious, concerned parents, it fails to recognize many critical implementation considerations ranging from child learning and development factors, to implementation issues such as whether school districts could even possibly provide the quality and quantity of training necessary.  Those experienced in school safety who have worked with schools know that with today’s academic demands, the vast majority of schools are struggling to provide the comprehensive and ongoing training needed for the adult crisis team members and staff we entrust with the care of our children.

Questions and Concerns About Schools Teaching Children to Attack Armed Gunmen

A number of implementation questions and concerns exist about school districts taking on the task of providing training to their students to throw items and physically attack armed gunmen.  These include, but are not limited to:

  1. It is unrealistic to expect 25 students and a teacher to react simultaneously, with split-second accuracy and timing, when a person with a gun unexpectedly walks into a room.  Coaches spend hours, weeks and years working with youth to perfect athletic skills, and team dynamics often do not generate such skilled snap judgment capabilities and physical precision in non-life-and-death circumstances. We do not have a student show up to one football or basketball game practice for an hour or two, never come back to practice and then expect them to play effectively six months later if we toss them into a game at a critical point.Military units work for weeks, months and years to develop such skills.  And police departments train patrol officers extensively, and SWAT officers practice intensely throughout their assignment in a SWAT unit, to develop such skills and abilities. How could anyone who understands training, and especially anyone who understands child learning and behavior, believe than an hour or two presentation or video would adequately prepare students to fight armed intruders?  Are schools supposed to train teachers to lead the response by issuing the order, “All right, kids: Attack the gunman!”   Do they expect students to practice throwing books at teachers or other students and then attack them once every month as a new drill?
  2. It is particularly unrealistic to believe that one, two, or even several hours of instruction (or “ipod target practice”) can adequately prepare any group of children to have the precise physical responses and split second judgment to make the life and death decisions required when confronting an active shooter. Truly effective physical self-defense training requires both extensive instruction and countless hours of practice. It is highly questionable whether a lecture, with or without videos, or a one-time “practical exercise” would accomplish the stated goals. Most experienced school safety consultants, who understand the intricacies how schools work and the constraints placed on them, know most schools considering such training would not be capable of offering either the quality or quantity of training necessary to accomplish the goals behind such proposed training.  School districts also could not ward off even the most frivolous after-the-fact law suit that would inevitably challenge the school district’s implementation of this type of training delivered in the described manner.
  3. Would throwing objects incite a suspect to fire his/her gun when he/she might not otherwise do so?  While proponents of such training can point to real and hypothetical scenarios where it may have some impact, we can also look at situations where it could have escalated a situation.For example, in the Fall of 2008 in a Cleveland, Ohio, suburb, a high school student walked into a classroom with a gun drawn and then went out into the hallway, fired a round in the ceiling and one into a trophy case.  The school’s principal and assistant principal calmed the student and  the student turned over the gun with no one injured.  If students automatically start hurling textbooks and ipods at the student when he first walked into the room with the gun drawn, many could have been shot.School shooting threats have included students such as the individual above who could have, but did not, harm anyone due to the intervention of adults.  We have also seen very targeted school shootings where the shooters were looking for specific persons and/or types of persons, and did not attack many others that could have been attacked.  Would we want everyone to start throwing items and attacking an armed person, with questionable probability of success, only to trigger more anger and shootings by these typically mentally unstable persons who may not have otherwise plan on shooting everyone?We also saw the extreme situation of dozens of terrorists who seized a school in 2004 in Beslan, Russia.  Would we want children to try to physically attack a couple dozen intruders armed with high powered weaponry, most likely to place themselves in a position of guaranteed to be shot on-sight?And while some incidents with armed students and other individuals have involved the shooting of adult school staff members, many others have not.  Advocates for training students to attack armed persons seem to overlook the role of the adults in the school.  Yet time and time again, adults have taken the leadership role to prevent harm and/or to save the lives of their children from potential attackers, including armed individuals.Not every situation is going to be clear cut in how it may unfold.  Responses to unfolding incidents by police and adults in schools will vary based upon the facts and nature of unfolding incidents.  Responsibility for taking the lead with these judgment calls should be the primary responsibility of well trained adult professionals, not emotional, frightened children.
  4. It is simply not realistic to recommend such confrontational training for young children due to their developmental levels and related factors. One proponent of this type of training acknowledged it should be recommended only for students in grades 7 to 12. At that point, the question becomes: “What about our younger children?”If current practices are considered so inadequate for the middle and high school grades that children must be taught to throw items at and directly attack armed gunmen, what is their plan to protect children in grades Pre-K to 6? Or are the young children simply written off as “sitting ducks?”
  5. What consideration does such proposed training take into account for special needs students (physically challenged, emotionally disturbed, autistic students, medically fragile students, students with learning disabilities, pre-school and daycare center children housed in schools, etc.) and how would this factor into the proposed theory behind teaching children to throw books and attack armed gunmen?
  6. Has such proposed training been thoroughly reviewed and endorsed by experts in child developmental issues, child psychology, child learning theory and related areas? (Note: To date, we have seen no endorsements nor have we heard of any from child development experts. In fact, several psychologists have suggested this approach is dangerous.)
  7. Will the school district mandate every student participate in the training?  What about parents who do not approve of the training and/or who do not wish their child/children to participate?  Will parental approval be received for each and every child to participate in the training?  And what then is expected of those children who do not wish to participate in the training, whose parents do not want them to participate in the training, and/or who do not feel safe, comfortable or capable of reacting in the manner taught in such programs?
  8. Who will instruct such programs? What is the basis for their qualifications?  Is the local law enforcement agency giving a one-shot training to teachers and then the teachers are expected to implement it with little-to-no professional experience, skills, and qualifications to do so?If they claim certifications to instruct such programs, what is the basis of the certification? Who is the authorizing/certifying agency? Is the “certification” merely a certificate of attendance for attending a training workshop? Are the trainers representing themselves or acting as agents for a company or a law enforcement agency? What liability insurance do they carry to protect themselves and indemnify school districts if and when lawsuits are filed in connection with such training?
  9. Are the instructors (and their agencies, such as police departments in the case of School Resource Officers (SROs) or other police department training officers), prepared to absorb the potential liability for the outcome of the training they provide to school students and staff? Does your school district have a formal legal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with their local law enforcement agency teaching the program which delienates the responsibilities and liabilities assumed by both of the organizations? In addition to the outside trainers, is the school board and administration prepared to accept the potential liability for approving such training?Has your School Board attorney rendered an opinion on the subject?What is your school board’s formal policy and regulations governing this program?
  10. Have parents been provided written detailed information on the full scope and expectations of the training, in particular that their children are being trained to attack armed intruders?  Have parents been given an opt-out option in writing?

School Leaders and Other Experts Reject and/or Question Schools Training Students to Attack Gunmen

It interesting that the public school district in Burleson, Texas, where teaching students to fight intruders first received national/international media attention in 2006, actually backpedaled on training its students to physically confront armed intruders.

An October 26, 2006, Associated Press news story said that, “A suburban school district that taught students to attack a gunman if he invades a classroom now says it regrets the training and that students should not physically confront armed intruders.”

The article went on to quote the school spokesperson:  “That was not something we believe in and not something we supported,” district spokesman Richard Crummel said.  “It wasn’t brought to our attention until they had already done the training.”

The district reportedly sent letters home to over 8,500 students expressing their regret for the training and saying that the district did not, and would not, support teaching students to attack an intruder, according to news reports.

The superintendent of the Burleson district was quoted as saying he was surprised to have seen the training video according to one news report.  The Burleson Star indicated in one story that the district dissolved the program in October of 2006.

A November 1, 2006, article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram also attributed an international security expert who studied the 2004 Beslan, Russia, school siege with saying that, “… the practice of students throwing objects at an armed intruder would probably result in deaths.”   The article went on to say that this expert said that, “But two or three hours of training provided six months before a potential incident is far from adequate.”

The proposed training again received national news coverage in December of 2008 when a Massachusetts school district reportedly was discussing the idea of training students as young as 10 years old to fight back against a classroom gunman.

According to a December 10, 2008, story, the Massachusetts school district’s superintendent said the proposal to provide such training created some concern among administrators.  She was quoted as saying: “We had immediate discomfort with all of this because it’s not the way we’ve thought about it in the past, and also we worry a little bit more about the liability of all of this.”

Concerns continue in recent years. One Wisconsin sheriff’s deputy told Ken Trump that educators in one of the elementary schools in his district told elementary children to bring cans of soup to school to put in their desks to throw at heavily armed gunmen. Another high school principal told us he was told in this type of training to play loud music over the PA system to distract a heavily armed active shooter who would be shooting in the hallway. We question these and other odd theories and tactics put forth with these types of training.

Supporting and Better Preparing School Staff and First Responders is Most Reasonable, Viable Approach

We should not expect schools to train students to bring a calculator, ipod or backpack to a gunfight.  We should, however, demand that schools adequately prepare our school staff with best practices for preventing and responding to crisis situations to protect our children, teachers and school staff.

The court standard of “in loco parentis” (meaning “in the place of the parent”) sets the standard for expectations of school leaders.  When parents send their children to school, it is the adults at the school who are acting in the place of the parent (in loco parentis).  Just as a father or mother would and should be responsible for taking the lead in making judgment calls and taking immediate action to protect their children, so is the expectation of school administrators, teachers and support staff when the child is in their custody.

Ken Trump summed up this as follows: If I am out at the mall with my family and shots are fired, or police are chasing a potentially armed shoplifter, as the adult in charge I take the lead in making the split-second decisions as to the best course of action to protect my wife and children.  I do not look down to the little children all around me and say, ‘Go get’em, kids.  Tackle that potentially armed guy.’   As a father and school safety professional of 25 years, I expect the same leadership and actions from the adults with whom we entrust our children at school each day.

Most importantly, our teachers, administrators, school support staff and school police and security officers have repeatedly and consistently stepped up against threats and into the line of harms way to protect our children in schools across the nation that have been confronted with violence and threatening offenders.  We are proud of them and advocate for more training and support to best prepare them for continuing to take the lead in protecting our children for whom they are responsible and care for so much, but also know that the decision to confront a shooter is an individual, personal split-second decision, which is different from schools, as organizations, teaching the tactic and making it school policy.

Options DO Exist for Comprehensive School Safety Programming

There are many other options schools can and do take to protect children that are not leaving children as “sitting ducks.”  A few of the many examples include having trained, armed school resource officers (SROs) and school police department officers on campuses, employing trained and professional security staff, utilizing proactive security measures including physical security and violence prevention practices, training school staff and crisis teams on emergency response procedures, having evacuation and lockdown plans that are practiced regularly, training students on drills and common sense security measures such as not opening doors for strangers and to report strangers in the building and on campus, providing blueprints and floor plans to first responders and having them train using school facilities, improving prevention and support programs for students, and a host of many other measures.

The key is to have comprehensive school security and preparedness plans, not simply knee-jerk, feel good reactions such as the ones we have heard like arming teachers and having kids carry bulletproof backpacks. Most important is having well trained adults capable of making fast, solid judgment calls to protect children and themselves.

We fully support effective school safety training.  The real questions, though, are: “What is effective? What and who are we training? and “Can and will it be properly implemented in schools?”

We also fully supports and encourages the right of parents to teach their children how to react to various types of threatening situations. Such discussions should be age-appropriate, presented with an understanding of the developmental and emotional state of the child, and realistic in expectations and outcomes.