New training rethinks actions in school shootings

New training rethinks actions in school shootings

CHAMPAIGN — All they could do was curl up. Some hid under desks. Others sat stoically, waiting for the man portraying a shooter to come into the classroom.

It was silent in between each of the 32 shots. No one resisted. No one tried to run. No one even thought to call 911.

After 1 minute, 6 seconds, the simulated school shooting was over. The training instructor yelled "Safety! Safety! Safety!" and the Champaign and Ford county school administrators and police officers participating in the demonstration knew it was OK to take off their masks and goggles.

In just over a minute, Unity High School assistant principal Tim Gateley pegged 22 people in three classrooms with a plastic pellet gun. They didn't move much. They never had a chance.

"I run this because you mandate in your schools that your kids do that," said national trainer Shawn Slezak. The ALICE Training Institute proposes that the traditional lockdown reaction during active shooter situations may be getting people killed.

Slezak says his institute's way of doing things — essentially hide, run or fight — is a new way of thinking that gives students a better chance to survive a school shooting, and Champaign and Ford county schools are listening closely.

"It's just a completely paradigm shift in the way we have traditionally thought about crises," said Orlando Thomas, director of achievement and student services for the Champaign school district.

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Administrators across both counties are training potential instructors who could bring the new method back to their schools and empower their students to make their own decisions if the day they dread the most were to come.


For years, school shooting training scenarios have centered on locking classroom doors, turning off the lights, drawing the window shades and waiting for help to arrive.

The reality, Slezak said, is that shootings in public places roll out very quickly. In a best-case scenario, it would take police at least a couple minutes to respond. Under the traditional lockdown and shelter-in-place methods, the shooter would have free range of a school and encounter very little resistance along the way.

Had the shooter in Slezak's first scenario during the training session Thursday at Illinois Terminal been holding a real gun in a real school shooting, he would have been able essentially to execute those 22 people in just more than a minute.

Officials across the country — particularly police — have been rethinking their response to active shooter situations, largely since the Columbine shooting in 1999.

University of Illinois Police Training Institute Director Michael Schlosser said the old method was to call in the SWAT team when a shooting occurred. The SWAT officers would gear up, take up tactical positions outside of the school and enter methodically.

"Now what we are doing is training street-level police officers, as they are responding, to immediately go in and take out the threat," Schlosser said.

The Department of Homeland Security has evolving recommendations for students and teachers, too.

"They recommend run if you can run, hide if you can hide, and then barricade," Schlosser said.

The federal agency also suggests that victims fight back if they are confronted by the shooter. But the goal is to not be confronted in the first place.


That was the thrust of Slezak's second scenario on Thursday. All the victims returned to their same classrooms, but this time they were told they could run.

And that's what they did. As soon as the first shots rang out, the victims evacuated in all different directions, down hallways and into stairwells. Some ran past the shooter, and some ran away from him.

For 32 seconds, the scene in the READY school cafeteria was chaotic, and the man portraying the shooter later admitted he had trouble focusing on his targets. Nine people were hit with his plastic pellets.

"Just by empowering you to run, we cut it in half," Slezak said.

Slezak invoked the reports of a 6-year-old who told his classmates to run during last year's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Shooter Adam Lanza stopped to reload his gun, and six children ran right past him to safety.

The six-year-old who gave the "run" command stayed behind and was killed.

Urbana High School Principal Matthew Stark said the training was insightful. The high school's emergency plans stress "survivability," the best ways for those involved to survive an attack.

He called the ALICE system "very educational."

"Very important ways to protect our kids," Stark said.


Slezak's third scenario took it a step further. Now the victims were allowed to fight back or throw items at the attacker to distract him.

Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Middle School principal Jeremy Darnell portrayed the shooter in the third scenario, and it did not last long. He was ambushed by a handful of people waiting for him as he entered a classroom.

One person involved in the takedown was hit in the side of the neck by a pellet from Darnell's gun. The whole thing lasted less than eight seconds, and Darnell only got off a few shots before the ambushers got him under control.

"He was a determined assailant, and he hit one," Slezak said.

The trainer from the Medina, Ohio-based company runs these scenarios throughout the region, and he said the results are similar everywhere.

"The scenarios come out the same way every time," Slezak said. "I can tell you how many will get hit, where you'll get hit on your body."

The point here, he said, is that victims increase their survivability if they have the mindset to run or fight back instead of the traditional method of sheltering in place.

This is the aspect of the training that often comes under criticism, Slezak said, but the people who make those comments are "either misinformed or not educated on the program."

He said the program does not mandate that someone attack a gunman, and the training is always age-appropriate, particularly for the kindergarten through second grade students.

He compared it to "stranger danger" training. If a child is approached, they are instructed to run, kick or scream — do whatever it takes to get away. He said he sees no sense in advocating fighting back against a potential kidnapper, but not against an active shooter.

"We're giving them the mind-set that they're going to survive," Slezak said.

Final decision

Thomas of Champaign schools said no final decisions have yet been made about the ALICE method, but said, "We do have plans to bring ALICE to the district in June."

"At that time, we'll determine if we're going to change our current crisis plans and responses and formally adopt ALICE," he said.

Stark said administrators are preparing to do the same at Urbana High School. If those schools and the others who were present at this week's training were to move forward, they would join 3,000 businesses and 300 school districts across the country that are ALICE-certified, according to Slezak.

Champaign County Sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Vercler, who participated in the training, endorsed the program.

"I believe in it," he said. "I think it's an effective response."

Thursday's simulations were just part of the ALICE training last week. Thomas underwent the full 16-hour training.

"It was extremely eye-opening," Thomas said. "Especially the simulations regarding the survivability."

If the district were to move forward with the ALICE training, Thomas said, the key will be explaining to parents that they are not requiring that students act a certain way should the unthinkable happen.

"Those will be some of the points about ALICE that we will have to be very informative with our parents," Thomas said. "To really explain that, if we're adopting that, we are not mandating that anybody ever go and attack a person who is armed."

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