ALICE in Wonderland?

By: Adam Sutton BCPS Teacher and Parent

Like many parents will do in the coming weeks, I just walked out of my kid’s “Back To School Night.”  She is off to kindergarten, and her teacher, principal, and PTA President all addressed things ranging from drop-off and pick-up routines to acceptable snacks to curricular overviews and beyond.  But, one update captured my attention beyond the others: ALICE.

ALICE is a response protocol being implemented by Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) to replace the traditional lockdown procedure.  ALICE provides school staffs a variety of approaches when dealing with armed assailants on, or around, a school building.  No longer is sheltering in place the only option.  Teachers and students are considering what large items could be used to barricade and secure classroom doors.  They are learning how to “counter” armed assailants should a barricaded door be breached.  They are being advised about how to relay information as well as when it is appropriate to flee.

As uncomfortable as the ALICE protocols make me as both a teacher and a parent, I applaud BCPS for doing something.  In our current social and political environment, law makers—particularly at the federal level—seem intent on doing nothing concerning school violence.  The idea that the best we can do to keep schools safe is to tell teachers and students to make barricades, run, and/or “counter” should be offensive to the exceptional nature of Americans everywhere.

ALICE is a step in the right direction.  BCPS is admitting we, as a country, have an issue surrounding school safety.  ALICE is also an admission of the fact that over the last 25 years, we have done very little to address the issues of school violence.  Americans have never backed down from a problem.  A staple of our success has been an ability to constantly and steadily grow.  We should demand the same with regards to school violence.

It is difficult to pin down when the last fatality from a school fire was, but it hasn’t happened in the last 20 years for sure, and it has likely been far longer.  Fire safety has improved and not just at schools.  That said, the reduction in fire related deaths has not simply occurred because we have gotten really good at fire drills.  Yes, fire drills have helped.  Anyone who has been surprised by a fire drill knows the response is instinctual.  But, fire drills are only a reaction to a fire already underway.  We have developed better, less flammable, building materials.  We have installed sprinkler systems in large buildings along with illuminated exit signs.  We limit the number of people in auditoriums and cafeterias.  Smoking is shunned in many buildings.  And, in many cases, these items have been codified in law.  Additionally, we’ve done copious research detailing the risk factors and trends of fire dangers disaggregated across geographical regions and demographic groups.  It’s impressive, and the results speak for themselves.

The problem isn’t with ALICE.  Most educators and parents I’ve spoken to understand its necessity.  They aren’t ignorant.  They know the risks.

The problem is that we know how to address dangers that are killing and harming our citizens.  Whether we look at fire related fatalities, or automobile deaths, or smoking related deaths, we know the solution requires multiple, seemingly inconsequential, steps that when added together cause slow systematic improvement.

ALICE training uses data gleaned from school shootings across the country, and it is no surprise that the presentations outlining ALICE protocols highlight the threat from people armed with guns.  The ALICE protocols don’t mention people armed with crock pots, toaster ovens, chainsaws, or even knives.  The protocols would be helpful should people armed with those items threaten our schools, but the protocols are not designed with that occurrence in mind.

School violence is a big problem.  ALICE is one small step in the right direction.  But, ALICE needs support.  Alone it is completely reactionary—like a fire drill.  It can help, but it does nothing to reduce the occurrence of school violence.  Yes, we must bolster our systems providing mental health services to those who are sick.  Yes, we need to design schools with interior and exterior doors that maximize safety.  Yes, we need school staffs at all levels coordinating and training for these dreadful moments.  And, if you have read this far, yes, we need stricter laws concerning the sale and ownership of guns.

If you’re not convinced we need to do more than ALICE, I urge you to attend Back To School Night.

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