Active shooter drills have become common in Pittsburgh-area schools but mental health effects remain unknown

With mass shootings on the rise, school districts find themselves with the responsibility to prepare students and staff. But there is little study of how effective drills are and if there are long-term implications.

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Yarra Howze (left), principal at Allegheny 6-8, and Beth Delawder (right), assistant principal at Arlington PreK-8, listen to a group discussion during ALICE training on Aug. 7. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Yarra Howze (left), principal at Allegheny 6-8, and Beth Delawder (right), assistant principal at Arlington PreK-8, listen to a group discussion during ALICE training on Aug. 7. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Ellie Miller knows to arm herself if her school is under attack. She is 8. In fall 2018, Miller’s third-grade class learned what to do in case an active shooter invaded her school. She says her teacher instructed her to pick up a nearby object. This object, whatever it may be, would be Miller’s last defense against an active shooter. If he entered the classroom to shoot her and her classmates, she’d have to throw it to distract the shooter and run.

Surprised by her teacher’s new lesson, Miller remembers thinking to herself, “We have to do this?”

Miller has learned to prepare for an active shooter at Colfax K-8 before. In second grade, the trainings weren’t “as intense,” she said. Back then, her teacher used to lock the door to the classroom and tell the students to hide.

Miller said the new way teachers are talking about shootings is “kind of scaring us.” Her teacher told the students that if they don’t follow the training exactly, they will get hurt by the shooter.

“They still don’t get that we’re kids. We’re still kids!” she said.

During these drills, Miller leans on her friends for comfort. She and her friends make sure to sit next to each other during the drill:

“...I have a bunch of friends and we make sure we sit next to each other during a drill, if it's real or not,” she said, referring to a few times that the school has been locked down due to incidents happening in the school’s neighborhood. “We always make sure each other [are] OK. We might hold hands. We’re going to sit next to each other no matter what.”

With mass shootings on the rise, and 2018 being the deadliest year on record for school shootings, schools like Miller's work to prepare students for a potential active shooter situation.

Under a 2018 revision to the state school code, schools must conduct a school security drill, in place of a fire drill, within the first 90 days of each school year.

Many schools do not develop the drills and associated training themselves.

At Pittsburgh Public Schools, the curriculum they used in Miller's class was developed by the ALICE Training Institute, an organization founded by Greg Crane after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.

ALICE training ⁠— an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate ⁠— has some parents, teachers and security experts concerned because of the “Counter” portion of its training. The institute instructs students of all ages how to fight back, or counter, a shooter.

For example, if the shooter enters a room with no other exit, students and teachers are taught to throw objects at the gunman in order to distract him. Some parents, teachers and security personnel believe that the training scares children instead of preparing them. There’s been no study on the effects of ALICE training on student and staff mental health. There’s also very little research on the effectiveness of the training.

In a world where students and teachers are already fearing mass murder, do these drills empower them or create more anxiety?

ALICE markets its flexibility. School principals can decide how to implement the program. Each teacher can also decide what is appropriate for their classroom. Because of this flexibility, however, different schools in the Pittsburgh region are experiencing ALICE in different ways.

One thing remains consistent, the ALICE Training Institute maintains that traditional lockdown drills don’t fully prepare students and teachers for survival. A study published in the Journal of School Violence titled, “One Size Does Not Fit All: Traditional Lockdown Versus Multi-Option Responses to School Shootings” observed ALICE trainings and found that more people were shot during a traditional lockdown scenario. The ALICE website reads, “When people are empowered, authorized and trained to respond themselves when facing imminent threats, the survival outcomes are vastly better than when they sit quietly hoping a locked door will keep the bad guy out…”

Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators receive instruction between active shooter drills during ALICE Training on Aug. 6. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

On the website, ALICE cites a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI that found “8 of the 50 active shooter incidents in 2016-2017 were ended by citizens.” ALICE also cites guidelines published by the Department of Education and the International Association of Chiefs of Police that suggest countering and fighting back as options during an active shooter event.

One of the most recent mass shootings, however, showed that when a gunman has certain equipment, there is almost no way to prevent deaths and injuries. In Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 4, a gunman carrying a rifle with a high-capacity magazine killed 10 people in the first 32 seconds of gunfire. Uniformed police officers patrolling the entertainment district’s busy street shot and killed the gunman. While the officers did stop the gunman before entering a bar, he managed to fatally shoot or injure 37 people.

The ALICE Training Institute’s media contact did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment for this story. PublicSource did correspond with an ALICE representative when the newsroom requested online training, but once questions regarding mental health evaluations and how ALICE compared to traditional lockdown drills were raised, that representative did not respond to email.

According to the website, the ALICE Training Institute has trained 3,280 law enforcement departments, 3,700 K-12 school districts, 1,300 healthcare facilities, 900 higher education institutions, 1,700 businesses, 600 government agencies and 310 houses of worship.

Preparing kids to fight for their lives

Farooq Al-Said, a K-8 gym teacher at a Propel school, sees value in the ALICE training. During the 2017-2018 school year, he participated in an adult-only ALICE training conducted by Propel Schools. Before becoming a teacher, Al-Said studied martial arts for 26 years and previously worked with military and private security agencies.

“Prior to [ALICE], every school had their own, very wrong and dangerous protocol,” he continued, “just a lockdown scenario.”

Al-Said thought ALICE training helped teach faculty and staff different tactical defenses based on the location of the classroom and where the shooter had entered the building. Participants were broken into groups or teams and assigned a classroom. Each team assessed their threat level and responded accordingly. Classrooms farther away from the shooter should evacuate. Those close to the shooter and anyone who could hear the gunshots must barricade the door.

“And also, if you are able to climb out of a window, that leads you to a whole different realm of options,” Al-Said said.

ALICE Training Institute instructor John Lubawski talks with Pittsburgh Public Schools trainees on Aug. 7. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

During the drills, the actors posing as shooters used airsoft guns that looked and fired like assault-rifles and handguns. Groups experienced five or six different real-life scenarios over the course of one school day. Teachers were shot at in classrooms after barricades were broken down by an intruder. Teachers trained to tackle the gunman.

If faculty or staff wanted to opt out of the training for mental health reasons, they weren’t required to participate, but they were required to be present, Al-Said said.

In one drill, Propel employees were huddled into the school gymnasium. ALICE trainers handed airsoft guns to teachers and told them to fire into the crowd, demonstrating that a gunman didn’t need to be a trained marksman in order to kill a lot of people. If you were shot, you were instructed to fall to the gym floor.

Al-Said said he remembers seeing a lot of teachers and staff lying down, posing as the dead.

“In terms of school defense against mass shooters, because of the spontaneity of it, there’s no real training for it. You can’t expect anybody to replicate something they learned one time for a few hours in a life-or-death situation,” he said, “For anybody. Law enforcement doesn’t have a firm grasp over it. That’s why they train often in order to make something like that a reflex.”

ALICE Trainer, John Lubawski instructs Merecedes Williams, a PPS employee how to use Nerf gun prior to an active shooter drill. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

ALICE Training Institute instructor John Lubawski instructs Merecedes Williams, a Pittsburgh Public Schools employee, how to use a Nerf gun prior to an active shooter drill. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Individuals who react to a confrontation or dangerous situation calmly must suppress adrenaline and fear, Al-Said said. For example, the new agent training for the FBI is 800 hours over 20 weeks. This training includes: academics, case exercises, firearms training and operational skills. Case exercises simulate what agents would experience in the field; they confront, disarm and neutralize hired actors playing criminals and terrorists.

“When we did our ALICE training, there were some people who had anxiety attacks before it even happened. They just couldn’t cope with the possibility that someone was going to shoot,” he said.

Al-Said remains skeptical over whether ALICE’s counter measures effectively prepares participants. He said he’d take a bullet for one of his kids before he’d ever ask his students to counter, let alone tackle, a shooter.

“There’s nothing you’re going to be able to do to prepare a 6-year-old to fight for his life,” he said.

‘If you do nothing, you die.’

The ALICE curriculum provides a book specifically developed for elementary school students called “I’m NOT Scared, I’m Prepared!” by Julia Cook. With nursery rhymes and colorful illustrations, children learn to arm themselves and flee an active shooter through a scenario developed in a metaphor — the story of young ants surviving an attack from a wolf.

“If the wolf gets in our classroom, we’ll know just what to do.
Make noise, run around and throw our ‘somethings’ at the wolf,
and then we’ll run right through,
The door and down the hallway, but don’t run in a straight line.
Run in a funny ZIG-ZAGGY way and make strange noises the whole time!”

Later, in the story, the ants dress up a custodian named Mr. Olsen in a wolf costume and he practices hunting the students.

“Mr. Olsen somehow figured out how to get into our classroom, but when he opened the door, we were ready for him,” the book reads.

Cook told PublicSource the ALICE Training Institute approached her to write the book because they “didn’t have a way to sit down with a 6-year-old to talk about a shooter.” Cook said she underwent a three-day ALICE training to understand the institution’s tactics. The ALICE Institute announced the release of “I’m NOT Scared, I’m Prepared!” in 2014.

“You try,” she said. “If you do nothing, you die.”

Cook said she considered child mental health when she wrote the book. “My goal is not to scare kids. This is an action plan. You can relate it to a fire drill. It doesn't scare kids, it makes them smarter.” She said if a child is afraid after an ALICE drill, parents should refocus their “what if” fears into things they can control.

‘They could reassure people...’

Since Columbine, there hasn’t been much research or studies on how drills and lockdowns affect student and staff mental health. To track long-term effects of drills on mental health is difficult “because there are so many other factors at play,” Jillian Peterson said.

Peterson, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University, works with the U.S. Department of Justice on its mass shooter database and recommendations for prevention. She’s interviewed mass shooters and survivors of mass shootings.

In 2015, she published one of the only studies conducted on mental health and active shooter trainings. She focused on how a school shooting training video affected community college students.

“We found the video increased anxiety and fear, especially among female students. There is little published research, but lately there have been a number of journalistic investigations looking at the trauma that lockdown drills can cause,” she wrote in an email to PublicSource.

Peterson also said drills like ALICE could inspire more violence:

“As a psychologist, I am also concerned because we know there is a social contagion aspect of school shootings. It's possible that drills trigger a fascination in vulnerable students, and that we are contributing to the contagion.”

The National Association of School Psychologists and National Association of School Resource Officers partnered to provide guidance on “Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills.” The ALICE Institute contributed.

The guide recommends: “School-employed mental health professionals should be involved in every stage of preparation” and “[a]fter completion, staff and students should have access to mental health support, if needed.”

Micah Fancher, 18, graduated from Woodland Hills High School in June. He said he felt  frustrated by ALICE training because it took him out of his school day. He’d rather focus on schoolwork. At Woodland Hills in winter 2018, students were told to run out of the building and meet at a nearby baseball field. He didn’t think the training was particularly scary.

However, Fancher said he wishes therapy options were offered to the student body before and after the active shooter drills.

“Just to make people more comfortable and more safe with the thought of, ‘This could happen at the school.’ They could reassure people...so they’re not afraid anymore,” he said.“We’ve already discussed where to run to if this happens, so we could have more therapy sessions with the kids.”

Micah Fancher, 18, graduated from Woodland Hills High School in June. He said he wishes therapy options were offered to the student body before and after the active shooter drills. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Micah Fancher, 18, graduated from Woodland Hills High School in June. He said he wishes therapy options were offered to the student body before and after the active shooter drills. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

After the active shooter training, students were told they could go to the counselor if they felt anxious or afraid, but Fancher said that wasn’t something students would readily do.

“...But we can go to certain teachers for that type of advice,” Fancher said.

Kimberly Bowles’ 5-year-old attends Kerr Elementary in the Fox Chapel Area School District. Bowles expressed her concerns about ALICE to the Fox Chapel school board at a public meeting in April. She was concerned that “the administration is not doing a finalized assessment” of student mental health after an ALICE training. The school board didn’t give her an answer then. In a letter sent to her home, the board referred her to Kerr Elementary School principal. The principal told her she could opt her children out of the training.

“They do allow parents to opt out, but don’t publicize it,” she said.

‘Shock value’

Kenneth Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, served as an expert witness in civil cases regarding the Sandy Hook shooting and San Bernardino school shootings.

He said ALICE drills could trigger children who have been exposed to trauma in their homes and communities whether through domestic violence, child abuse, gun violence or other violent crime. He said there’s been little to no research on how this internalized trauma could affect a child during an ALICE drill.

“Consideration must also be given to children with special needs,” he wrote in an email to PublicSource. “Schools have students with autism, behavioral disabilities, emotional regulation challenges, mobility impairments and other special needs. To place children in a context where they are subjected to these unproven techniques is high-risk and unnecessary.”

He is concerned about the impact of the drills on school staff as well.

“If we don't recognize the impact of trauma and stress these drills often unnecessarily bring to the staff, how can we expect these adults to manage and prevent trauma and stress from the drills upon their students?” Trump wrote.

Jason Hank, a Spanish teacher for 17 years at Beaver Area High School, was shot at with pellets during an adult-only ALICE training in 2015. His students were not trained with an actor pretending to be a gunman, and he’s thankful for it.

“The point could have been illustrated without. I don’t think we should have been shot at. I was shot in the leg. I was huddled under a desk and shot in the leg,” he said.

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, Jason Hank, a Spanish teacher and technology coach for the Beaver Area School District, asked his seniors if they’d feel safer if he had a gun. His students told him yes, but he didn’t agree. “What if I shoot the shooter and the police see me firing bullets into the chest of a child?” Hank said. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, Jason Hank, a Spanish teacher and technology coach for the Beaver Area School District, asked his seniors if they’d feel safer if he had a gun. His students told him yes, but he didn’t agree. “What if I shoot the shooter and the police see me firing bullets into the chest of a child?” Hank said. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Before the scenario training, Hank and his colleagues watched a video “dubbed over with 9-1-1 calls” and that depicted gunmen “taunting their victims as they screamed.”

“We don’t need shock value to be convinced that we need to save our kids,” he said. “I was in college when Columbine happened. I’ll never forget that as long as I live and I don't need to be reminded either.”

After the training, Hank and his colleagues complained about its content and they haven’t had training like it since.

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018, Hank asked his seniors if they’d feel safer if he had a gun. Without hesitation, his students told him yes. He didn’t agree.

“What if I shoot the shooter and the police see me firing bullets into the chest of a child?” Hank said.

‘No idea what to do’

Rosie Gwin, a rising seventh grader at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts [CAPA] 6-12, said ALICE is a good thing and better prepares her for the real world.

The ALICE drill she went through started with an announcement over the speaker system, alerting students and staff a shooter entered the building. The announcement had details about where the shooter entered the building and what he was wearing.

“They told us about it ahead of time,” she said. “They say if they’re in the room, we’re allowed to fight back if you can.”

When she was in fifth grade at Linden K-5, Gwin said her teacher told her not to ever lunge or attack the gunman.

“My science teacher told us not to do that because he said, if something happened, he would do something because he was older and he had lived his life,” she said.

ALICE drills don’t give Gwin anxiety, but something else does.

At CAPA, students pass through metal detectors every morning. Their bags are searched, too. Gwin said it shouldn’t be just students who are scrutinized.

“The thing I don’t really like about my school is they don’t check the teachers, at all,” she said. “It could happen with a teacher, you know?”

Gwin said ALICE is necessary because school shootings happen “too often” and the trainings make her feel safer. She talks frankly about it, says it’s the reality of America’s current situation. She’s scared about a shooting already, she might as well learn something.

“Because what if something happened and we never got taught this? We would have no idea what to do,” she said.

Brittany Hailer covers mental health and behavioral health issues for PublicSource. She can be reached at brittany@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Juliette Rihl.

The Staunton Farm Foundation has provided funding to PublicSource to cover issues related to mental and behavioral health.

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