CAPE ELIZABETH — The school district is learning a new emergency response plan that trains staff and students to be more proactive when facing potential threats such as armed intruders.
The plan, known as ALICE, is an acronym for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate,” and instructs individuals to take action when a threat is posed, rather than taking a passive approach as previously practiced in lockdown drills.
Following the guidelines of ALICE practices, the alert and inform steps of the new procedure allow students and staff to know the details of a crisis as it’s taking place, which is a departure from the old plan, in which code words or phrases were broadcast during drills and emergencies.
School staff already have an application downloaded on their phones and computers called Share911 which allows them to quickly communicate with one another about what is going on and which students are in their care during emergencies.
The lockdown step of the procedure instructs teachers to decide whether evacuation is possible during an emergency and, if not, how to effectively barricade students into the classroom or confront the intruder as a last resort, by interrupting their thought process by standing up, yelling or throwing things at the attacker.
According to interim Superintendent Howard Colter, administrators started meeting at least once a month almost two years ago to discuss the district’s emergency response plan.
“We’ve given a lot of thought to what we can do to enhance safety in our schools and I feel we’ve come a long way,” Colter said. “… People have been taking this seriously way before this last wave or two of tragedies across our country.”
Colter stressed the plan is not in response to a series of local incidents, including a perceived threat last month which resulted in the temporary closing of all Cape Elizabeth schools.
Rather, in August, a team of assistant principals and school nurses attended a two-day workshop in Biddeford based around ALICE training led and attended predominantly by law enforcement. Police Chief Neil Williams will send officers from his department to the same training this summer.
CEHS Assistant Principal Nathan Carpenter presented their findings to the School Board on March 6.
“The true first responders in any lockdown situation are the students and staff,” Carpenter said. “… Information is key. Wherever the threat is in the building, you implore your staff to make sure they spread the word of the threat.”
Colter added that the town is fortunate to have their fire and police departments stationed so close to all three of the schools.
“The average national response time is five to six minutes before the local police or law enforcement would arrive,” Carpenter said. “We’ve suggested that our response from (the police department) would be two to three minutes.”
With the ALICE plan, teachers are trained in different maneuvers and how to identify which is best suited to the emergency situation at hand.
“ALICE training … allows the opportunity for teachers to be a little more empowered in the decision-making process,” Carpenter said.
Colter said high school teachers have primarily been involved in training so far by surveying their classrooms to identify potential points of egress and how to effectively create a barricade, with the intention of teaching the plan to students this fall.
According to Colter, training varies by grade level, depending on what is appropriate for various ages.
“It’s a fine line,” he said, noting that the school department wants to practice and be prepared without instilling an unnecessary amount of fear or anxiety in students and staff.
Lockdown – a practice which entails closing windows, locking doors, turning off lights, and hiding under desks, windows, or behind walls – Carpenter said, is an outdated practice which began in the 1970s in response to a slew of drive-by shootings and gang violence in southern California.
“Ironically, that’s the lockdown that’s evolved and been adapted from every public education institution in the country,” he added. “Since 1970, there’s been very little movement from (that).”
Carpenter pointed to tragedies, such as the 2007 shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia and the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, which might have resulted in fewer fatalities had victims been trained to take a more proactive approach.
“Those two situations … prove, in essence, if you try to protect yourself and you barricade yourself in the room and/or leave … you’d be best suited for success in these horrible situations,” Carpenter said.
Facilities Director Perry Schwarz said the department has also been looking at how to increase security in schools, such as improving lock systems and penetrable glass in doors and windows.
“Doing nothing would be the worst-case scenario,” Carpenter said.