Kanawha students receiving controversial new training to counter school shootings

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Kanawha students receiving controversial new training to counter school shootings
By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter, Charleston Gazette-Mail

 As part of a new training program, Kanawha County schools officials are now telling students and teachers they shouldn't automatically hunker down in classrooms if there's someone with a gun in their school.

Perhaps most controversial is the program's guidance that students can physically confront a shooter as a last resort.

The U.S. Department of Education doesn't recommend that, but Katherine Schweit, the FBI's senior executive in charge of its active shooter initiative, wrote in an email to the Gazette-Mail that “Run, hide or fight — or some combination of those — is the reality of the three options everyone has during an active shooter situation.”

Keith Vititoe, who became Kanawha's new school security director in April, said school employees and students are now learning under the Medina, Ohio-based ALICE Training Institute's program that their best chance to survive an active shooter is to evacuate if they have a clear, safe path toward an exit.

If they can't escape, they're being taught to lock and barricade the door to their classroom with objects like desks and filing cabinets. “They're looking for convenient targets,” Vititoe said.

“We want to make it nigh impossible for them to get into those classrooms.” If all else fails and the shooter still enters the room, teachers — along with students in middle and high schools — are being taught to “counter” the attacker through actions like yelling, moving around and throwing books and other objects at the intruder to distract him or her from shooting accurately.

They are also being told they can “swarm” the attacker as a group to bring the gunman to the ground. “We're not teaching any martial arts moves, Jiu-Jitsu, Taekwondo or anything like that,” Vititoe said.

“We're not teaching anyone to go and look for danger, it's just the opposite. We're teaching it's a strategy of last resort.” Vititoe said elementary schoolers aren't being taught counter techniques.

The ALICE program only recommends high schoolers be taught the swarm tactic, but stresses implementation is left to school districts.

Vititoe said Kanawha is increasing the number of mandatory active shooter drills this school year from one to four, and has paid $24,000 to purchase online licenses for about 1,000 non-teacher school employees, like clerks and information technology employees, to receive ALICE training.

He said local law enforcement agencies have also paid for their employees to receive ALICE instruction, and those officers have in turn trained teachers, who are in the process of passing the new procedure on to students.

All Kanawha schools will have pre-announced lockdown drills using the new methods early next month, but there won't be more elaborate role-play events involving police and fake shooters.

Vititoe — who took his current position after retiring from 22 years with the county sheriff's office, where he led the SWAT team, trained the entire sheriff's office twice on how to respond to active shooters and customized his own presentation on the subject for presentations at colleges, Charleston Area Medical Center, the Girl Scouts and other groups — said past shootings have demonstrated the traditional lockdown method “doesn't always keep you safe, so we have to do a little bit more.”

New thinking on active shooter responses

An FBI-commissioned study of “active shooter incidents” from 2000 to 2013 found 27 occurred in pre-K-12 schools across the U.S. The 2012 shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 27 people were killed, resulted in the second-highest number of deaths among the 160 active-shooter events identified at all locations during that timeframe — behind only the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, when 32 died.

The study found the shooter was a student at the school in a dozen of the 14 high school shootings — one was a former student, and another a student at a different school. Five out of the six middle school shooters were students at their schools. In the high schools, seven of the shooters were initially restrained by school employees, including one situation where students helped, before police captured them.

School employees restrained half of the shooters in middle schools before police apprehended them. The 2003 attempted school shooting at a Kanawha school board meeting — in which administrators wrestled a gun away from an employee after he tried to set his boss on fire — also shows up in the report.

Various programs and policies have suggested what students and school employees should do to protect themselves from active shooters before police arrive.

The FBI report found that, out of all 160 active shooter incidents, the duration could be determined in only 64 incidents. Of those, 44 ended in 5 minutes or less, and 23 ended in 2 minutes or less. J. Pete Blair, a Texas State University professor and an author of the study, said 50-60 percent of active shooter incidents end before police arrive.

In all but two of the 160 instances, shooters acted alone. Vicky Shaw, an ALICE spokeswoman, said the ALICE program is backed up by the 2013 Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans, which endorses the Run, Hide, Fight method in active shooter situations.

The guide is signed by the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. departments of Education, Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. A video developed by the city of Houston that's often used to explain the Run, Hide, Fight method suggests that, “first and foremost, if you can get out, do.”

 “Always try to escape or evacuate, even when others insist on staying,” the video states. “Encourage others to leave with you, but don't let them slow you down with indecision.”

Vititoe said one of the basic principles of the new thinking on active shooter situations is allowing those in harm's way to make their own decisions.

He said ALICE — which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — is a set of guidelines that aren't listed in a particular order, but do give school occupants steps they can follow in the time before police respond. He said it's essentially the strategy of Run, Hide, Fight, tailored to schools.

Criticism of ALICE and other active-shooter programs

But David Esquith, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Healthy Students, said the education department doesn't recommend students fight shooters — even as a last resort, and even if they're large high schoolers.

 “It's not just a matter of how big someone is, there's a great deal of judgment that goes into how to deal effectively as possible with this very, very complicated type of situation,” Esquith said.

He said the education department doesn't “endorse any particular protocol other than what is specifically in” the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans. The Department of Homeland Security — which contains another signer of the guide, FEMA — deferred comment to the education department.

Schweit, the FBI official, wrote the guide “is designed to allow each community to set its own standards on how to discuss this with school-age children.”

“Many schools have chosen to discuss the concept of 'fight' with high school students and many others have not,” she said.

“The goal of the guide is to not develop a single plan, but rather to have district officials, principals, teachers, parents and local first responders discuss, decide and plan what is best for their community.”

The “Fight” section of the guide only mentions adults in immediate danger should consider trying to “disrupt or incapacitate” the shooter.

“In a study of 41 active shooter events that ended before law enforcement officers arrived, the potential victims stopped the attacker themselves in 16 instances,” the document says. “In 13 of those cases they physically subdued the attacker.

“While talking to staff about confronting a shooter may be daunting and upsetting for some, they should know that they may be able to successfully take action to save lives.

To be clear, confronting an active shooter should never be a requirement in any school employee's job description; how each staff member chooses to respond if directly confronted by an active shooter is up to him or her.

 Further, the possibility of an active shooter situation is not justification for the presence of firearms on campus in the hands of any personnel other than law enforcement officers.”

Greg Crane, founder and president of ALICE, noted the “Hide” section of the same document appears to suggest staff and students should hide in fortified areas close to the exit but out of the view from the hallway, in order to allow for “an ambush of the shooter and for possible escape if the shooter enters the room.”

Crane also said more than 2,000 police agencies across the nation are teaching the ALICE program in 1,900 school districts.

“I think that alone is somewhat of a validation,” he said.

Safe Havens International Executive Director Michael Dorn — whose active shooter training Kanawha schools were using when Vititoe arrived — has concerns with the Run, Hide, Fight method and ALICE training, even though he said he's not against physical intervention if one is truly trapped.

Dorn, who said his campus safety nonprofit has helped assess security in more than 6,000 K-12 schools in 24 countries, said that in simulations his nonprofit has run to test whether individuals will react properly to various situations — including active shooters, but also more common incidents involving guns in schools, such as people threatening suicide — he's seen several situations where ALICE trainers have chosen to attack people with guns who were threatening to kill themselves.

“You can turn a hostage situation into a shooting event very quickly,” Dorn said. “Or someone threatening suicide into a suicide.”

Though it may not be the intent of training by ALICE or other active shooter response programs, Dorn said teaching people they can confront the shooter “as a last resort” can condition them to do so when it's inappropriate. He also said there are liability issues for school systems that implement such training.

Late last month, a student at Philip Barbour High School in Phillipi held students and teachers hostage with a pistol in a classroom before letting them go after a teacher in the room helped talk him down, The Associated Press reported.

He then holed up for at least an hour and a half contemplating suicide, before his pastor and others were able to help persuade him to surrender.

Vititoe said the Phillipi incident was “definitely an anomaly.”

“We could have woken up to a headline the next day that said X number of students were attacked on that day,” he said. “But they were extremely fortunate.”

Locked doors are successful, when available

Dorn, who was a school district police chief for a decade in Macon, Georgia, and served as the lead school safety expert for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, has concerns beyond the Counter portion of ALICE.

He said traditional lockdowns are actually very successful when correctly applied, and knows of only one case — in 2005 at a high school on Minnesota's Red Lake Indian Reservation — in which a shooter actually breached a locked classroom inside a school.

Even then, the attacker got in by shooting out an interior glass window. Dorn said his simulations have suggested prioritizing evacuation may cause teachers and students to run from well-fortified classrooms when they simply don't know where gunfire is coming from, and said barricading doors could cause problems if a shooter combined fire with firearms.

Vititoe suggested a fire being a greater threat to students than attackers with guns would be unlikely, saying schools are built out of fire-resistance materials and are equipped with sprinklers and alarms.

“Is it possible? Sure.” he said. “But I guess it's possible for 50 ninjas to parachute from a space shuttle, too,”

Blair, the Texas State University professor who studies active shooter events, said it's true that no interior locked school door has ever been breached. But he said not all classrooms have lockable doors, and some doors must be locked from the outside with keys.

He said the biggest improvement schools can make is installing deadbolts that don't require keys and can be locked from the inside.

Vititoe said Kanawha teachers are urged to keep their doors locked while classes are in session, but cited security concerns in declining to explain what kind of locks county schools have.

Blair — who's also executive director of his university's Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, which has developed its own Avoid Deny Defend active shooter response program — said schools need to be prepared for situations in which classroom locks won't offer protection, like when shootings start in classrooms, cafeterias or auditoriums.

 As for the concern over barricades blocking fire escapes, he said many elementary schools are one-story buildings with doors that lead right from classrooms to the outside. He said schools need to plan according to their own layouts.

As for the suggestion that school employees and even students should counter shooters as a last resort, he said civilians stopping shooters is even more common in school settings.

“To suggest that people shouldn't think about it or that it shouldn't be addressed or talked about is irresponsible,” he said. “We have stories that don't turn into massacres because people did something.”