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Schools’ security efforts examined

Districts, regional superintendent work to improve safety for students

Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 12:20 p.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 2)

Five to eight minutes. That’s how long the average school attack lasts, school safety experts say.

That’s about all the time it took for an armed gunman to kill 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

In the months since that tragedy – much like other school shootings before it – there has been a flurry of solutions and schemes proposed to stop another from happening.

Armed guards. Metal detectors. Teachers with guns. Bulletproof backpacks.

In McHenry County, a heightened level of awareness has educators and schools on edge. Schools are taking a second look at their own safety procedures and are implementing new tactics – some productive, others not so well planned.

Cary-Grove High School started a firestorm of criticism in January when school officials fired a starter pistol as part of a “Code Red” drill. District 155 officials said at the time that they wanted to give students an idea of what gunfire sounds like.   

“I think ultimately it’s our responsibility to make sure that all of our students are safe and can respond under pressure,” District 155 Superintendent Johnnie Thomas said after the Cary-Grove drill.

Some parents were furious at the prospect and questioned whether the district made the right choice by firing the starter pistol. The McHenry County regional superintendent of schools said she was “surprised” and not entirely supportive of the idea.                                                    

“I was glad that all the superintendents have reflected on that and decided that perhaps it’s not a necessary measure to introduce [the sound of gunfire],” Leslie Schermerhorn said. “... I don’t want children exposed to guns in their educational environment; life is scary enough.” 

Since that time, the Crystal Lake high school district has revised its lockdown drill plans.

It hasn’t tried that technique again and likely won’t, District 155 spokesman Jeff Puma said.

While schools look for other ways to beef up their security initiatives, Schermerhorn and the Regional Office of Education have thrown support behind what some see as a controversial school safety technique method called ALICE.

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. It’s a relatively new philosophy on how to respond to an active shooter. Instruction is offered by a private company that has studied past school shootings to perfect and support its methods.

“This is something we can do to increase our survivability should – God forbid – something happen,” Schermerhorn said. “I can’t change gun laws, but this is something we can do now.”

The regional office is so supportive of ALICE training that it has offered to pay half of the training for each of the county’s 80 public schools, or $750 per school, Schermerhorn said. 

“I think that’s a drop in the bucket when you’re looking at school safety,” she said. 

But critics of ALICE find fault in two letters of the acronym – C and E.

“Counter” simply means distracting the shooter by any means possible. This can be yelling, throwing objects or otherwise distracting the gunman. Critics of this practice say it teaches children to fight a gunman and could put them at risk for further harm.

“Would throwing objects incite a suspect to fire his or her gun when he or she might not otherwise do so?” questioned Ken Trump, a school safety expert and president of National School Safety and Security Services. “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.”

Schermerhorn said she supports only older children being trained to counter a gunman.

Those who find fault in the escape component of the training say it leads to even more chaos.

ALICE training encourages fleeing the scene, but only when it is known where the threat is, if it’s not nearby, and once a predetermined meeting place is established. This evacuation is similar to how students would evacuate during a fire, said Erin Harris, who has been working with the Regional Office of Education to get this instruction into local schools.

Harris is a former member of local law enforcement and a one-time teacher.

She’s given all that up to focus on promoting and selling the ALICE training, for which she is certified. 

ALICE instruction has been met with resistance, Harris said, mainly because it’s a far cry from traditional lockdown drills. While these drills have their place in school safety, it often makes students “sitting ducks,” she said.

“Traditional lockdown [drills are] stuck,” Harris said. “It hasn’t changed since Columbine. We changed our police response, but we didn’t change what’s happening inside the schools. It’s time to make the change from just sit and wait, to let’s be proactive.”

While it’s still to be determined whether local schools will implement ALICE tactics, educators and police aren’t taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to immediate changes to safety procedures.

“It’s our philosophy that you train for the event that you hope you never have,” said John Birk, deputy chief with the McHenry Police Department.

The McHenry department hosted joint meetings with local schools and Schermerhorn to plan a multipronged approach to school safety. McHenry’s plan is to train everyone from teachers to custodial staff to students. 

Additionally, McHenry is planning a mock incident over the summer.

The training will cover an incident from the flood of 911 calls to a sweep of the building.

“It’s important for faculty members to train to react to a situation that’s not in a textbook or slideshow presentation,” Birk said.

The jury is out on the best way to prevent violence in more schools, be it armed guards or bulletproof backpacks.

“It’s an ongoing process and ongoing discussion,” Puma said. “I don’t think this topic is ever going to go away. It’s something that’s going to continue to evolve.”

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