In early October I received a postcard-sized advertisement in my mail at school. This is common. Each week I receive a dozen or more postcard advertisements, full size color brochures, and even catalogs for anything you can imagine that can be marketed to schools. This one stood out. It was for a whiteboard on wheels, for classrooms.
It was bulletproof.
A bulletproof whiteboard on wheels. For classrooms.
The ad implied that with the right purchase, I could save lives. It implied that one of my responsibilities as a school leader was to prepare for the unthinkable, and that any resource not spent in that endeavor was wasted.
The other advertisements got tossed, unopened, into the recycling bin. This one got propped up against my desk clock. I would look at it and seethe. The rush of adrenaline was palpable each time it caught my eye. It took me weeks before I could figure out why that postcard made me so angry.
It said: you aren’t doing enough.
It said: you aren’t doing enough to protect children.
It said: violence at school is not an aberration. It is something for which you must prepare.
Worse yet, it pointed to misdirected priorities, and an abdication of our primary role as educators. We know that school shootings are most often perpetrated by students who attend the school. The message was that rather than find a way to connect each child to the community, we must instead accept that one or more of them are inevitably going to want to hurt us.
It said: we must plan to protect ourselves from our children.
I know the statistics. How many children are shot in schools each year. How often the principal is among the targeted people. How the number of school shootings has increased in recent years, in coincidental tandem with an increase in gun sales, and in similar tandem with the use of standardized test scores to rate schools.
This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you. When it happens to you.
That there can be violence at school is not news to me. I know that there are real threats to our students and schools every day. I know my role, as a school leader, in making sure our students are safe. Most often this means being aware of individual conflicts and working to make sure that they do not boil over into physical conflict. Sometimes it means helping to break up a fight. And I know that sometimes the potential exists for a more dangerous incident.
Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted a new protocol to respond to potential shooting incidents. Called ALiCE, it is a specific set of steps to be taken in case of an event where someone enters the school intent on harming one or more people in the building. It has a reasonable premise that makes it an improvement over the old response model. In the ALiCE response, you can take steps to defend and protect yourself.
ALiCE is, of course, an acronym. It works like this:
A – Alert. When you realize an incident is occurring, you make an announcement to the whole school. You also alert authorities. A sturdy radio box was installed in my main office with a large red button. Pressing that red button quickly handles several tasks: it sets off an alarm in the school that indicates that the building is on lockdown, it immediately connects you, via radio, to emergency dispatch (and, curiously, to every other school that has one of these boxes), it disables the key card readers at the doors and locks the front door, making the building harder to access. It also sends an emergency text to my phone, and I suppose the phones of a CPS security staff. The red button is serious business. I’ve told my office staff they can never press the button without my order, unless I’ve been shot. (More on that later.)
L – Lockdown. Initiated by the red button, or by a PA announcement during drills or non-emergency lockdowns (such as when police notify me they are pursuing an armed suspect in the vicinity of the school), lockdown is a common drill. There is a series of steps that teachers should take in their classroom, mostly to make the room inaccessible and to make it seem empty, and thus not a target.
i – inform. [Note: not a typo. A trademark protection prevents the creators of this system from using all capital letters.] This is where the new system deviates from the old one. The old protocol was that after you were placed on lockdown, you waited under your desk until the voice of an authority figure announced you were safe. Now, with the use of cameras and the PA system, my responsibility is to try and locate the person intending to harm others, and share his location with the whole school. These give important information to teachers, and are also meant to disorient and frustrate the individual attacker.
C – counter. Another innovation in this system is the permission to “counter” the individual. Instead of sitting passively in a ball under your table, you can act to protect yourself. A disoriented attacker is more likely to fire his gun inaccurately or to move on to an easier target.
E – evacuate. Using the information provided over the PA system, teachers now have the opportunity to decide whether it might be in their best interest to get their class out of the building and away to a safe place – in our case, St. Catherine’s. If they determine that the attacker will not see them, they can exit the building to go to our rally point.
CPS has assured teachers that they can now use their best judgement in an ALiCE event, and will be protected from prosecution if something happens during their evacuation.
This new twist on the protocol prompted an unusual conversation outside of school. Cora is a family friend in the fourth grade at St. Catherine’s, a school on the other side of the park behind our school. At a recent community event, she approached me excitedly. “Mr. Jose, your school is our safe place in case we have to get away from a shooter.”
“Hey, yes, I knew that. Your principal and I agree to that every year. Your school is our safe place.”
She was eager to tell me more, “And, you know what?”
“If someone comes in to shoot us, we get to throw things at him!” Her enthusiasm was clear. In a child’s mind, this situation, and the chance at self-defense by throwing a book at an assailant, was a wonderful adventure. These are the sorts of flights of fancy a person’s mind naturally takes in daydreams, or heroic stories they tell themselves and each other while playing. A child tries on certain roles, and then can easily discard them – a police officer, a criminal, the President, a teacher, a superhero. But this self-defense training is an awful intrusion into the world of play for a child. The message that this particular act might not be play one day is damaging. You may have to throw a book to save your life; you might not be safe here; we don’t have bulletproof whiteboards.
This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you.
When it happens to you.
When the district adopted this ALiCE protocol as policy, principals were required to attend training to implement it. Designed by our district security and facilities staff, this half-day in a conference room felt a little like officer training. We were given the outlines of ALiCE, with a bevy of statistics. Dozens of students shot and killed in mass victim incidents in Columbine and elsewhere. (This was before Sandy Hook, another school name we should never have heard, but which now haunts our collective consciousness as unspeakable terror.) Individual students shot in dozens more incidents, which gained less publicity, throughout the school year. We learned that time and time again assailants were successful in getting into the school, which is a relatively soft target. We learned terms like “soft target” – which means a building that is not set up to actively defend against unwanted visitors. We called the aggressive student the “perp”, short for “perpetrator.” We learned about “choke points” for student egress, where students can’t all get out quickly and become easier to harm, spots to be avoided during evacuation. We learned that frequently these angry students had easy access to weapons, and they used them to inflict harm on one or more people. We learned that more than half the time, one of the targets was the principal.
I was half joking when I told my staff they could only press the red button if I had been shot. As part of the training, we learned that statistically it is more than just a possibility, in the event of a shooting at my school, that I will be a victim too, along with one or more of my students and staff. Along with the terminology, that night I carried home some of the machismo that was communicated through the training. “It’s okay,” I reassured my wife. “Almost seventy percent of the time when a principal is shot in one of these incidents, he lives.” It took several minutes for her to be able to speak to me, to ask me to vow that I would never joke about that again.
I knew that my actions in the moment could actually save lives, and I took that seriously. This was not news to me. I already believe my actions every day are saving lives, or at least changing them forever.
We were provided a slide show that talked about the history of the ALiCE concept, and the ways that the process might work at any given school. And then we were shown a video.
Slightly grainy black and white, this video was taken from up above the subjects, as if the camera was on the ceiling. Framed on the right side by a shelf of books, it must have been from a library security camera. The movement below a table was confusing at first, then I realized there was a crouching girl in a white sweatshirt, and I knew for sure that I was watching a surveillance video from one of these infamous school shooting incidents. When a male figure entered from the left, I did not need to see anymore. I could not see anymore. I stood, said to no one in particular “I can’t watch this. Get me when it’s over.” Then I walked out of the room.
On my way out, I heard our instructor announce that this was video from Columbine. He named the young man who had just entered the picture, a name too familiar to us now, and I heard the voice of a young woman pleading for her life. Then, thankfully, the door shut behind me, and I sat down on the floor in the hallway, and willed myself not to cry. I was sick to my stomach. Even now, more than three years later, I viscerally experience the intensity of that moment.
I did not need to be convinced of reality. I did not need to be persuaded to do all that I could to protect my students. I did not need to hear the pleas of frightened children, or hear the pop of semi-automatic gunfire in order to take my work seriously. I do not want to become callous to those sounds, or familiar with them. But I still cannot reconcile this strange contrary aspect of my job, the expanded role of protector of my students against immediate threat, and the chief nurturer and educator. Ten minutes later the group took a break and the other principals left the room, subdued.
We know that safety codes and frequent drills work to keep people safe in public buildings. The last death in a public school due to a fire was in the 1950s. Strict building codes have made fires less frequent, and largely eliminated blocked exits and broken signs and signals. Schools are required to do safety drills continually for a variety of potential threats. Recent changes in the expectations in the state of Ohio have added emergency drills, for the potential of a shooter, to the bevy of fire and tornado drills. In total, we are required to do 14 such safety drills a year – one fire drill each of the 8 months we are in school, one tornado drill each of the three months we are in school during tornado season, and three safety / ALiCE drills.
Teachers take these drills seriously. The questions I am asked come from a desire to understand the policy fully and to implement it effectively. We work to take the drill as a full “dress rehearsal” – if we are to evacuate silently, we do. If we are to crouch or sit, we do, even if just briefly.
I know that these ALiCE drills traumatize my students and my teachers. Several years ago, at a team leader meeting, one teacher was nearly in tears as she sought answers to a question about her windows. To reduce theft, first floor windows were built to only open enough to let air in, but not a person. Likewise, in the event of an emergency, a person could not get out. Her students were going to have questions, and she wanted to get the answers right.
A year earlier, in our old building, an officer knocked loudly on the door of a classroom and identified himself as a school officer. With the teacher’s permission, a student let him in. “Bang!” he yelled. “You are all dead. You can never let anyone in until the all clear has sounded.” Some students laughed. Others jumped and crouched harder in place.
Shortly thereafter, when the all-clear had been announced, we called home to have a parent pick up the student who opened the door. She was so distressed that she could not stay in school the rest of the day. Our students understand the nature of violence, and some of them have seen it play out in their lives. Some of them walk home to houses on streets that my teachers suggest are too dangerous to drive down.
This year, Krista related the hard questions her students asked her as they debriefed the drill.
“Why can’t we let someone in?”
The answer? “It might be a hostage situation.”
“What happens if one of us gets shot?”
“I won’t leave you.”
I understand that fires and tornadoes happen. I understand that conflict happens in school.
I can’t understand why shootings occur in school.
Following the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, where 26 students and staff were shot and killed, several parents of the victims created Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing school violence. While they acknowledge that larger solutions need to be taken societally, their approach has been school-based. The emphasis is on providing support for every student, and being aware of the signs of social isolation and aggressive behavior, is the right approach to helping solve the problem. Their awareness video, entitled “Know The Signs”, is a powerful reminder to us to make sure we are vigilant and attentive to the needs of every student. We are inclined, in reviewing the video, to see a perpetrator. But what we see is a child.
Intentionally building community among students, whether in very large high schools or in small elementary schools, is the best way to make sure no student feels so angry and left out that he must make such a dramatic statement.
How do we do that?
- Build community into the school. Using specific classes such as advisory, or a team-based approach to schools, allows teachers to intentionally develop a relationship with individual students;
- Strengthen access to mental health support. Through hiring counselors and partnerships with mental health agencies students in crisis can be given the individual support they need to get through an individual incident or a long-term mental health concern;
- Teach grit, and that it gets better. Let students know that their current personal, academic, and interpersonal concerns are not world-ending. Instead they are temporary, and they have solutions.
- Teach empathy. Give everyone the skills and the responsibility to look out for one another. Let them know who to talk to if they are worried about themselves, or if they are worried about someone else.
- Offer multiple definitions of “success” in education. Celebrate athletes, artists, academics, and advocacy. This allows for students to be part of the community of the school without having to pursue one or two narrow definitions of what it means to fit in.
In a society where children have nearly unlimited access to every imaginable media, from supportive videos reassuring them that “it gets better,” to destructive videos idolizing and rating school shooters, we cannot put up a barrier to keep problems out. We must instead equip students with the skills and the support to make wise decisions and to look out for one another. The answer is not bulletproof whiteboards. The answer is not ALiCE. These are band-aids as a response to needed heart surgery.