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ALICE debut attracts handful of parents in Somerset

It is the kind of headline no school district wants to make — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook.

Because the consequences are so horrific, no responsible district should ever trust the odds that it might not ever happen to them. Instead they must educate, train and rehearse their staff, students and community in emergency procedures in the unlikely event they ever have to broadcast the words, “active shooter on campus.”

With so much at stake, and despite a rigorous notification campaign, you have to wonder why only a handful of parents showed up at the high school in Somerset last Monday night to listen to District Emergency Management Coordinator Shannon Donnelly explain the district’s new approach to handling crisis situations, Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate (ALICE).

Donnelly explained that over the last year, the Somerset School District has joined other local districts in changing how it plans to deal with active shooter threats discarding the traditional “Lockdown-only” approach in favor of the much more proactive approach facilitated by training programs like A.L.I.C.E.

“A year ago, our administration came to the conclusion that we needed to put ourselves in a better position to really beef up the safety and security in our buildings, specifically in response to an armed intruder coming into our building. Statistically the odds of an armed intruder coming into our buildings remains extremely low. But the consequence if something like that would happened is so severe, we have to plan as if it were going to happen tomorrow. As a result, I went through ALICE training and became an ALICE instructor,” said Donnelly.

Experts studying active shooter crises, including the three mentioned previously, have discovered survival rates for students and staff increase greatly by using the ALICE approach versus their odds as “sitting ducks” in the lockdown-only model.

The lockdown-only approach, previously the accepted standard for dealing with active shooter scenarios, employed techniques inherited from the cold war era related to preparation for a nuclear attack. It instructs teachers to sequester their students in a corner of their darkened classrooms while quietly awaiting help or the all clear alert. This passive approach has unfortunately resulted in unacceptable numbers of casualties demanding a better solution.

Using graphic video examples and audio of cell phone conversations from Columbine along with diagrams illustrating how the Virginia Tech shooting unfolded, Donnelly carefully made the case supporting current thinking that students and staff are better served by trying to escape if the opportunity is available and employing countermeasures including swarming a shooter if escape is not an option.

“Never ever will we guarantee that in the event of an intruder coming into our buildings that the death count will be zero, but everything we do is devoted to increasing everyone’s chance of survival,” said Donnelly.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education in consultation with several other agencies including Homeland Security, Department of Justice and the FBI issued a document entitled, The Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans.

Page 63 of that guide states, “There are three basic options: run, hide, or fight. You can run away from the shooter, seek a secure place where you can hide and/or deny the shooter access, or incapacitate the shooter to survive and protect others from harm.”

Page 64 of that guide emphasizes a critical change in the decision-making process that takes place during a threat situation.

“THOSE IN HARM’S WAY SHOULD MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS. While they should follow the plan and any instructions given during an incident, often they will have to rely on their own judgment to decide which option will best protect lives.”

ALICE training was developed in direct response to the guidance provided in the 2013 DOE publication.

As a trained ALICE instructor, Donnelly appreciates the independence and responsibility the new program entrusts to teachers and students.

“Alice is designed to give options and empower our staff members to make choices,” said Donnelly.

Donnelly walked audience members through the ALICE program.

ALICE training emphasizes that all possible lines of communication be employed to keep students, staff and first responders informed and alerted during a fluid situation as to where the threat is and possible avenues of escape. If escape is not an option, lockdown becomes an option. But unlike traditional lockdown-only training, ALICE lockdown instructs teachers and students to barricade any entry to their room in an effort to deter the intruder from entering their classroom. If the intruder still manages to enter a classroom and threat becomes one of life and death, teachers and students are taught to rely on their own instincts and judgments to employ tactics like scattering, to make it harder for the intruder to hit individuals, make noise to distract the intruder, or in dire circumstances, to ambush and swarm to overpower the intruder. Once students and staff are able to evacuate a classroom they are instructed to regroup at pre-designated rally points around campus.

Training began with Somerset staff at all three buildings last spring. Training with students will start this fall.

“In April and May of last school year, we rolled out the initial ALICE information to all staff. On June 6 and 7, every building went through a three-hour ALICE training incorporating multiple scenarios put on between the school district and the police department. The training was extremely intense and emotional for everyone who went through it,” reported Donnelly.

Donnelly explained that some of the tactics employed at the high school and middle school level cannot be employed at the elementary school level.

“Elementary age students will be working through a couple different workbooks and read alouds with their teachers. Teachers will be learning age-appropriate words and language to use with their student,” said Donnelly.

At the middle school, students will watch a variety of video trainings and presentations facilitated by their classroom teachers. During practice scenarios, middle school students will learn about where and how to evacuate and what building a barricade might look like in their classroom. They will also learn about countering. Countering, in their case, will focus on making noise, creating distracting movement, and recognizing what kinds of things in their classroom could be thrown at someone who came through the door. Middle school students will not learn about swarming or using any sort of physical confrontation.

“With our high school staff, again we have video presentations and trainings geared specifically toward high school-aged students. We will talk with them about full countering, what would it look like to swarm, keeping in mind, any time something like that would happen it would be because your child is faced with a life or death situation,” said Donnelly.

Donnelly made a point of telling the audience, students and staff will always be trained to consider evacuation first, if possible.

“None of these things will happen without parents receiving at least a couple weeks notice. Parents will know well ahead of time before any of these conversations take place in their student’s classrooms,” said Donnelly.

Questions may be addressed directly to Shannon Donnelly by phone at 715-247-4848, ext. 575, or through the district website at, click on the staff directory tab.