Iowa Parents, Students Learn to Fight Back in Active Shooter Drills
The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Apr. 22—The nervous parents were sitting in classroom desks when loud pops rang out in the hallway.
Hearts started pounding and faces went pale. Everyone scrambled to the teacher's larger, heftier desk and crawled underneath —huddling in the classroom's only place where a shooter might not see them.
Under the desk, many held their breath until Marion police Officer Tom Daubs gave them the all-clear.
"Doing nothing is not really your best option. We're not sitting back and waiting anymore," said Marion police Officer Tom Daubs.
"It's nice to hear the laughs, see the color coming back," Daubs said as parents returned to their seats in the Linn-Mar High School classroom. They had just finished the first of three active intruder drills, during which they were instructed to try to only hide from the shooter.
In a subsequent drill, Daubs told parents they could hide or run. A mother pressed herself against a wall near the door, slipping out to safety when the pretend gunman rushed in.
Then they could hide, run or fight. Parents threw tennis balls at the faux gunman, causing enough distraction that a father disarmed him.
The drills were part of a Monday evening ALICE training, which often are given to school staff to equip them with a bevy of options—alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate—should a shooter ever target their school.
The trainings have become routine for staff in many Iowa school districts, and some district are beginning to offer them to students.
Doing more than hiding can dramatically improve a student's chances of surviving, Daubs said.
"You've got to know yourself," he said. "You have to know what you're capable of."
ALICE training was designed as a replacement for secure-in-place response plans, which largely have come to be seen as inadequate in the days since the 1999 Columbine massacre, when 12 students and one teacher were killed at their Colorado school.
During the Columbine shooting, many in the high school hid while waiting for a SWAT team, Daubs told Linn-Mar parents during their training. After that attack, and especially since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012 that left 26 people dead, ALICE training has become more popular.
Shooters want the "high score" when they take a gun into a school, Daubs said, but the people inside don't have to be easy targets.
"Doing nothing is not really your best option," he said. "We're not sitting back and waiting anymore."
As students across the country continue to stage walkouts and demonstrations in protest of a seemingly relentless wave of gun violence in schools, some school administrators and law enforcement agencies are continuing trainings they hope could guard against such an attack.
With the Marion Police Department, the Linn-Mar Community School District hosted ALICE training at a Parent University event last Monday, and it plans to host voluntary drills for students May 12.
The Iowa City Police Department and the Iowa City school district hosted the first ALICE training for students Saturday—though it did not include shooter drills. The district does regular trainings for staff.
School and law enforcement officials agree intruder training is one they wish weren't necessary for schoolchildren. But they point to the effectiveness of fire drills and tornado drills—and the rarity of school deaths due to fire or catastrophic weather events—as evidence of its need.
"We're not trying to do this to make people paranoid. We're tying to make them prepared," said Maj. Doug Riniker of the Linn County Sheriff's Office. "We're trying to set people up for success. When you look at fire drills or tornado drills, they do these for a reason. It improves safety."
While standard protocols for school fires or dangerous weather have been long established, response plans for intruders have considerably evolved. The lockdown-only approach, which was used in Columbine, dates to the Cold War when students were taught to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear attack.
Some 4,200 school districts now train students on ALICE protocols, according to its website.
It can be a big shift for schools, said Riniker, who said he has overseen ALICE trainings in all rural Linn County school districts. When students are hunkered down in classrooms, at least school personnel know where they are.
"Sometimes I think that's a hard sell for schools, to be honest, letting go of that accountability," he said. "It's trusting your kids will do what they need to do, and get to ... wherever your rally point is."
But trusting students and staff to take responsibility for their own safety has been empowering—for them and for first responders.
"As a law enforcement officer, it makes me feel good because I know they're going to take proper action when something happens," said Col. John Stuelke of the Linn County Sheriff's Office. "As we're responding to a call, they're taking the steps they need to get away from the intruder and get to a safe place. That's a little easier for us. Coming into a school where something has taken place, I want to know that most kids are out."
Riniker said the Linn County Sheriff's Office is willing to provide ALICE trainings to schools, businesses, churches and other organizations.
"We might be first responders, but we're not the first to respond," Riniker said. "That's you, folks."
As school trainings continue in the Corridor, many districts are following the lead of Center Point-Urbana, where ALICE trainings began years ago and are mandatory for students.
On Tuesday, Center Point-Urbana students and staff completed a full shooter drill—with students and staff going as far as to leave their schools and meet at the district's rally points, later getting bused back to their buildings.
At the high school, four drills are planned each year. High school Principal Rob Libolt, though, opted to cancel one this school year—as it was scheduled just two days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed.
But the drills are an integral piece of the district's ALICE training, Libolt said, and have prepared his students for intruders in ways that simply weren't talked about when he started teaching in 1999.
During the drills, each high school classroom is given a scenario and the location of a hypothetical shooter, and then has minutes to formulate a plan of action.
"We grow from it," Libolt said, noting he and officers from the Linn County Sheriff's Office oversee and talk through drills with students. "This last time, I'll be honest with you, we had a bottleneck at one time. So we said, we have huge glass pane windows±we could have taken the fire extinguisher and broken the windows."
It makes sense to be straightforward with students, said physical education teacher Mike Halac, as many if not all of them already are aware of the prevalence and danger of school shootings.
During drills where all students could do was hope a shooter didn't find them, he said, "the faces of the students is pure fear and panic. When you then follow that ALICE protocol, you see the energy, and kids are ready to have a say in what's going to happen."
The options that are outlined in ALICE trainings are ingrained in all Center Point-Urbana students, down to the elementary school level, Libolt said.
Younger students in the district aren't put in high-anxiety situations, but they do talk about what to do if a "bad guy" were to come to school, and they read age-appropriate books about staying safe.
In the elementary school, there are even stickers on certain windows—a marker showing children the best place to break it, should they need to crawl out and escape.
"It empowers the students. If you would ask my 6-year-old, hey Porter, what do you do if there's a bad guy? He would tell you," Libolt said. "As a dad, it gives me some relief. ... It's not that lockdown anymore, where you lockdown and wait for an intruder to show up."