Just as school children during the Cold War practiced “duck and cover,” students in this century are learning new catch phrases and drills to deal with the specter of calamity in the classroom.
School safety experts are debating the merits of strategies with names like “run, hide, fight” and ALICE, both of which are designed to save lives if a killer comes on campus.
After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, late last year, many school communities in the East Bay looked anew at their safety plans and enlisted the help of local law enforcement to draft fresh guidelines for what have become known as active-shooter events.
For obvious reasons, school districts are not in a hurry to publicize the details of their school safety plans, but EdSource recently wrote that “run, hide fight” is becoming the preferred protocol for schools in California.
Promoted by the federal Department of Education, “run, hide, fight” is pretty much what it sounds like: Run if you can; if you can’t run, hide; if you can’t hide, fight.
It’s a departure from earlier counsel that advised students and staff to “shelter in place.” The “run, hide, fight” strategy even permits teachers to ignore lock down orders if circumstances demand fighting or fleeing, according to EdSource.
ALICE, an acronym for alert, lock down, inform, counter and evacuate, also advises students to fight back or confuse an intruder by hurling whatever’s handy in the gunman’s direction. Like the last part of “run, hide, fight,” the idea of teaching elementary age children to fight is controversial.
Dr. Tony Shah, student services director for the Castro Valley Unified School District, said the district is evaluating ALICE, but administrators have not settled on a specific protocol.
That doesn’t mean the district hasn’t been planning for a worst-case scenario. Working with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, the district developed individual safety plans in the event of an intruder for each school site, according to Shah.
Last school year, sheriff’s deputies practiced a hostage situation on a CVUSD campus and students this year will have several opportunities to practice what to do in an active-shooter event.
CVUSD superintendent Jim Negri said research shows students feel safer the more they drill. But he also said adults need to take care about timing and providing age-appropriate information. Doing a drill immediately after a real-life tragedy could compound anxiety for children already traumatized by what they’ve seen on television news.
In January, Portola Middle School in El Cerrito staged a lock-down drill to help train students for an emergency.
Kevin Johnson, senior director of pupil services for Pleasanton Unified School District, said that coordinating with police who would be first on the scene is key to making a good plan.
“We want the police to come in and not have to worry about what our plan is,” Johnson said.
After Sandy Hook, PUSD officials took their school safety plans to the Pleasanton Police Department. “We were looking for, and received clear direction from the police department about student safety,” Johnson said.
Last year students in the Pleasanton district practiced a new hiding drill, where entire classrooms of children crowded into safe spaces and had to be quiet. The drill certainly was eye opening for students and parents alike, as it brought attention to modern-day threats and sparked conversations at home about what’s expected of pupils in worst-case scenarios.
Administrators at the Alameda Unified School District also invited police officers and fire department officials to review school safety plans in the weeks after Sandy Hook. The public safety experts “conducted... assessments at about 80 percent of the district’s school sites (including charter schools), using a checklist developed by the federal government’s Secret Service Department,” according to AUSD’s Susan Davis.
“That checklist includes issues such as ‘red dot’ locations, alarm systems, window coverings, sign-in procedures, lockdown procedures (hard and soft), public address systems, and emergency preparedness plans and supplies. Issues that were identified were then resolved either by the district’s Maintenance and Operations and Facilities department or by APD or AFD,” Davis wrote in an email.
In June, officials with the Walnut Creek School District met with officers from the Walnut Creek Police Department to discuss “safety measures in case of an intruder,” according to Patricia Wool, Walnut Creek School District’s superintendent.
Wool also said the district has installed new outdoor loudspeakers on all school sites so that students can hear directions if something happens at lunch or recess.
To be sure, the odds of a shooter attacking a campus are small. A statistician with the federal government reminded EdSource that every year suicide claims the lives of more children than do gunmen on school campuses.
Still, CVUSD superintendent Negri notes that fires and earthquakes have been responsible for zero student deaths on campus in California for the past five decades. The same cannot be said of school shootings.