Under pressure: In Brunswick, school emergency preparedness goes proactive

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Last of three stories.

April 2019 will mark the 20th anniversary of the shooting that killed 13 people and wounded 24 at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Since that time, there have been hundreds of other school shootings in the U.S., including the 17 school that have occurred this year, according to CNN.

But it was the tragedy at Columbine that inspired strategist Greg Cane to design the ALICE training program.

ALICE is an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. It is an alternative emergency response program, designed to teach a more proactive alternative to traditional lockdown drills.

According to its website, ALICE’s goal is to “provide preparation and a plan for individuals and organizations on how to more proactively handle the threat of an aggressive intruder or active shooter event.”

Cane also created an emergency response training program for first responders to prepare for an active shooter scenario, called RAIDER.

In November, the Brunswick School Board voted unanimously to replace the districts’ standard lock-down drills, which were previously conducted three times a year, with a three-phase program based on ALICE principals.

A new way of thinking

Former lockdown procedures generally followed shelter-in-place guidelines, instructing students to sit quietly in their classroom in a designated area during a school intrusion.

ALICE advocates for a more active approach.

With the “counter” step, for instance, students are taught skills using noise, movement, distance and distraction to make shooting accurately difficult, in the event a gunman enters their classroom.

Brunswick schools, however, have not adopted all ALICE techniques; especially not realistic components that other American schools have trained students with, such as drills simulating active-shooter scenarios with actors using fake guns.

“This is not the ‘hook, line and sinker’ ALICE program,” said Pender Makin, assistant superintendent of Brunswick schools. “I’ve seen the videos; it’s unnecessary.”

Makin said Brunswick’s version of the ALICE program includes three types of drills; so far this year, she said, every school has completed their first drills, and some have completed their second.

The first drill features a teacher reading from a script, which Makin said were created by teachers in each school to be “developmentally appropriate for students.”

The scripts, she said, were prepared “to make kids think differently” about how to respond to emergencies. She added that the scripts give teachers a uniform message to students during the drill.

During the first drill, teachers and students might compare and contrast the old lockdown procedure to ALICE, and discuss how executing the original types of drills felt and what might go wrong by using them. Then, they may discuss what to do in their particular environment if escaping during an emergency is not an option.

“They really get engaged looking at their surroundings and hypothesizing around, ‘If we couldn’t escape, what would we do?'” Makin said. 

By teaching students to be more proactive in emergency scenarios, she added, schools can give them skills for reacting to threats in any environment where it may be necessary.

“These are transferable thinking skills in a sense; if we’re teaching kids to freeze in emergencies, we’re not teaching them to be looking around in their own home (for the best options),” Makin said.

The second drill is a “tabletop exercise,” where Makin said students are given a floor plan of the school that shows where fire extinguishers and first-aid kits are located. Students also work in a group to establish the best escape route for different emergency scenarios.

In the final drill, different classrooms are each given a different emergency scenario, and use the plans they made in the second phase and the discussion they had in the first drill to carry out the best solution.

Depending on the emergency that has been given and its proximity, Makin said, some classes may elect to close and barricade their doors, while some might evacuate the school.

Afterward, school emergency teams will discuss perceptions of the drill and make adjustments based on feedback from student and staff.

“At no point are we talking about guns, or gunfire, or shooting or shooters; we’re just talking about generic danger of any kind,” Makin said. “(The scenario) could be there’s a gas leak on the other side of the building.”

Community response

Though students will not be exposed to faux shooter scenarios during Brunswick’s ALICE drills, Makin said each of the optional, in-depth, two-hour trainings offered for faculty and staff do involve more realistic simulations.

Every staff member in the district has now been trained in ALICE, but the more in-depth trainings are offered as additional, voluntary sessions. Those trainings, Makin added, have been filled to capacity each time they have been offered.

“The reaction from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive,” she said. “The whole concept essentially provides them with more information than they would have had in past drills or past possible scenarios, (and) provides them with empowerment to make critical decisions.”

Makin also said while she heard some concerns initially from a few parents about the switch to ALICE, after those parents attended one of the two informational community sessions put on by the district, their fears were put to rest.

Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, said she thinks in schools where active shooter drills are practiced, mental health debriefing for students who may be traumatized is crucial.

“It is traumatic for kids. Whether it’s high school or middle school it is very anxiety-inducing,” she said. “If there was actually an active shooter, we’d be providing mental health debriefing after; we also then need to do what we would actually do.”

Makin, said, however, the potential impact on students is part of the reason administrators in Brunswick went through the ALICE training regimen and modified it.

For instance, Makin said a part of the initial ALICE program she saw featured footage from Columbine, which she thought “was extremely exploitive.”

Similarly, in regards to mental health debriefing after the drills, Makin said Brunswick’s goal is to not implement a procedure that will necessitate that response. If a teacher who had undergone the more in-depth training was traumatized, she added, the district would examine the training more deeply.

“It would be our goal in Brunswick not to offer activities that would necessitate that type of response afterward,” she said.

Unifying the approach

Makin said in addition to the schools, School Resource Officer Tom Stanton has also introduced the Brunswick School Department’s version of ALICE to local hospitals and banks.

“One thing we have going is everyone has been trained in the same approach,” she said. “I think we are unique and special that we have this cross-departmental collaboration going on right now; I’m extremely proud of that.”

The district first started redesigning its emergency management plan about a year and a half ago, she added, with collaboration from the Police Department and Fire Department.

“This has not been reactive in response to recent news events on our part, it’s been proactive,” she said. “As part of that, we learned how lockdown drills are no longer recommended by experts.”

In the presentation he made to the school board last fall, Stanton said the original guidelines for standard lockdown procedure were created in the 1980s as a response to drive-by shootings in California.

“It was never meant for an intruder inside a building, but it was something, and I think we can do more now,” he said.

Makin said she thinks creating trauma-informed schools is crucial in this day and age, to support students who may be traumatized by events in the news or their own individual circumstances. In February, she attended the 2018 At-Risk Youth National Forum, put on by the National Dropout Prevention Center. 

At the forum, Makin presented alongside other education professionals, including her friend Frank D’Angelis, the retired principal of Columbine High School, who was acting principal at the time of the 1999 massacre.

In the discussion around guns and school safety, Makin said that while she believes not vilifying mental illness is very important, above all else she wants to emphasize increasing social connectedness and minimizing social isolation. 

The rise of technology, she added, has made social isolation in all of society worse.

“I think we are all in the middle of a sociological experiment that isn’t working so well,” she said. “(Keeping each other close) is what’s gonna make us feel safer than ALICE, gun control or focusing on mental illness. I would emphasize above everything else how critical it is we take care of each other.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

The series

Part 1: The challenges facing efforts to integrate mental-health support in area schools.

 
This week: Lockdown and active-shooter procedures, and the role of school resource officers.

Mental health resources

• Cumberland County Crisis Response: Toll-free crisis intervention and suicide hotline, available to any resident of Cumberland County 24 hours a day at 888-568-1112. More information at https://goo.gl/8jjaas.

• NAMI Maine Helpline: Confidential helpline for peers, family members, friends, professionals and law enforcement, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Toll-free at 800-464-5767, press “1.” Email: helpline@namimaine.org. More info at https://goo.gl/FWCAoG.

• Maine 211: Connect with specialists 24/7; a free and confidential service. Dial 211, text your zip code to 898-211, email Info@211Maine.org, or go online at https://211maine.org/.

• Maine Behavioral Health:  24/7 information about treatment options. A “Rapid Access” program also allows callers to receive a mental health assessment quickly to begin receiving services. Call 844-292-0111.

 Federal Bureau of Investigation: To report a tip to the FBI Boston Office, which covers threats in the state of Maine, available 24/7, call 857-386-2000 or go online at: https://tips.fbi.gov/.

School Resource Officer Tom Stanton in front of a bulletin board at Brunswick Junior High. Stanton presented a new, more proactive emergency response plan to the School Department last November. He has also trained officials at local hospitals and banks in the same program.

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