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Last month's attack at the Ohio State University is the latest to raise a tough question. How should schools prepare for dangerous intruders? Many districts are moving away from the standard lockdown towards more active responses that include fighting back. Some security experts are questioning that guidance. Dan Carsen of member station WBHM has more.
DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: It's an intense two days of drills at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Joe Hendry's a safety trainer for a company called the ALICE Training Institute. He's a retired Marine and a law enforcement veteran, and he's about to throw cush balls at a fake gun-wielding cop in a room full of police, educators, hospital staff and business execs.
JOE HENDRY: Watch the physical reaction to stimulus when I throw these balls at his head as fast as and hard as I can.
Did you see his body do two things?
CARSEN: The gunman's arm reflexively comes up to protect his head while his body turns away. The point - even trained officers can't aim with soft things flying at them. Next the group scrambles to barricade a door with heavy furniture. And then, a sudden breach - the designated attacker breaks in and blasts away with his paint pistol as an air horn simulates gunfire.
HENDRY: Safety, safety, safety, safety, safety, safety.
CARSEN: One officer who didn't get her mask on fast enough had to go to the ER with bloody facial wounds. It's all part of an ALICE Institute instructor's course. ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. Instructor Hendry says old school lockdowns - shut the doors, turn off the lights and hide - are restrictive and inappropriate when attackers are in the building.
HENDRY: A single-option response being taught is not actually an active-shooter event. It was meant for drive-by shootings.
CARSEN: ALICE teaches potential targets they have choices, including the controversial last resort of countering. That could mean distraction, throwing books or group tackling. There's no national database showing how many schools prepare this way, but critics and supporters agree the number's increasing. Hendry says 3,700 K-12 districts have had ALICE training. That's about a quarter of the country.
HENDRY: I think pretty much the nation's switching over right now because they've seen the failure of things that happened at Columbine, at Virginia Tech and Aurora, Colorado - all those locations.
CARSEN: School police officer Chuck Bradford likes what he's seeing, and the drills seem to support ALICE's approach. There were far more paint-spattered casualties when victims locked down than when they had options like evacuating, barricading or countering.
CHUCK BRADFORD: What we have to do is kind of re-educate our educators, our administrators, even our police officers to kind of show them that new movement of better training, better opportunities for survival. So that's why I'm here.
CARSEN: There has been an evolution in thinking. Federal agencies now recommend a Run, Hide, Fight protocol, with the fight component meant only for adults. School security consultant Ken Trump is a critic of ALICE and Run, Hide, Fight. He says after the tragedy of Sandy Hook, people needed to feel empowered. But...
KEN TRUMP: There's a difference between feeling more safe versus actually having a false sense of security that could teach you just enough to get yourself killed.
CARSEN: And Ken Trump is most worried about that with kids.
TRUMP: Some people are advocating to teach children what our law enforcement officers trained their entire career to do, putting that pressure and decision upon them to make a split-second life and death decision based on an hour or two of training that they've only received one time.
CARSEN: Of course, ALICE staff wants students and adults to get their training more than once. They say their programs are age appropriate and that conditioning potential victims to hold still makes them easy targets. Regardless, decisions on emergency preparation are made at state and local levels so training to fight back against gunmen could be coming to a school near you. For NPR News in Birmingham, Ala., I'm Dan Carsen.
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