Maplewood Police and Fire Schools / Kids South Orange

ALICE School Safety Program Sparks Debate in South Orange-Maplewood

UPDATED: The story now includes a letter to the Board of Education from local resident Norman Cowie that was omitted when the story was first published.

A newly proposed school security program called ALICE is sparking debate in the South Orange-Maplewood School District.

ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) is a training protocol for individuals and organizations “on how to more proactively handle the threat of an aggressive intruder or active shooter event,” according to the ALICE website, which continues, “ALICE Training option based tactics have become the accepted response, versus the traditional ‘lockdown only’ approach.”

ALICE was part of a comprehensive program for increased school security and safety proposed by SOMSD Director of Safety & Security Dr. Thomas Shea earlier this year. Discussion and approval of the program was pulled from the Board of Education agenda on May 14; Village Green has emailed the district to ask if ALICE will be on the agenda for the June 14 meeting of the Board of Ed.

On one hand, proponents say that ALICE — along with additional security measures such as the “hardening” of school entrances and ID programs — is necessary to ensure the safety of students in an era of high-profile school shootings nationally.

On the other hand, opponents say that the program is inappropriate and could make students — particularly students of color — feel and be less safe while not substantially improving safety.

Founder and a leader of the community group SOMA Justice Dr. Khadijah Costley White — a Columbia High School graduate — spoke at the Board of Education meeting on May 14, urging the Board to reject ALICE.

“There’s a lot of concerns,” said White, who said that the district should not be “driven by fear” when implementing safety and security. “Fear is the thing that got Trayvon Martin killed,” said White. “Fear is the thing we are trying to fight. We can’t have hallways where armed people are walking around who can pose a threat to our children.”

White said that the Parkland shooter “was from the school” and knew the protocols of the school safety program. “These kinds of protocols make people feel better but don’t make sense.” She asked that the Board “rely on expertise in the community.”

“Keep an eye on this because encroaching security states pose a danger for all of us and pose a danger for the kind of community we are trying to build,” said White.

White added in an email followup, “Once we hit the point where we’re considering a program that trains 5-year-olds to attack gunmen, we know we’ve crossed a line. There needs to be more transparency and thought put into how we make our schools not only safe, but suitable and appropriate learning environments for our kids.”

However, in a letter to the Board and submitted to the Village Green for publication, South Orange Police Sgt, Steven Davenport — himself a lifelong South Orange resident and graduate of CHS — said that training 5-year-olds to attack was not the priority of ALICE.

“ALICE Training does not believe that actively confronting a violent intruder is the best method for ensuring the safety of those involved; rather, counter is a strategy of last resort. Counter focuses on actions that create noise, movement, distance and distraction with the intent of reducing the shooter’s ability to shoot accurately. Creating a dynamic environment decreases the shooter’s chance of hitting a target and can provide the precious seconds needed in order to evacuate.”

Davenport wrote that he was “terribly disappointed by the board’s decision to remove resolution 3735 (district wide ALICE training) from the agenda on May 14, 2018. It’s my understanding it has been publicly stated that the political beliefs of the founder of ALICE do not align with some members of the Board and parents in our community. I do not believe this should discourage us from implementing the ALICE program. In my professional opinion, it is irresponsible for the Board to allow political beliefs and false narratives to dictate training programs in district. Meanwhile, our children’s lives are at stake with our current lack of planning as I sit here writing to you. I cannot sit back and stay silent about this.”

“If the ALICE program goes unused,” wrote Davenport, “the first thing people will ask after an active shooter event is, did my child and the teacher have the knowledge and skills needed to survive? Did The South Orange Maplewood School District provide them with the best chance by implementing their alternate less effective programs? The answer as of today is, ‘No.’”

Davenport also noted that, no matter what the school district decides, “the South Orange Police Department WILL CONTINUE TO TRAIN OUR OFFICERS using ALICE protocol. We will begin teaching members of our police force in the newest techniques on SOLO officer entry into our schools and Seton Hall University’s campus. We believe this training will be vital for the safety of the students, staff and officers. The Township of South Orange Village feels so strongly on the success of ALICE, Chief Kyle Kroll along with myself attended a week long ALICE – RAIDER instructor course. It is in SOMSD’s best interest to align to the programs our police use, in my opinion.”

See Davenport’s full letter here.

During his presentation to the Board of Education in March, Shea made this observation: “The good news is that the statistical likelihood is 1 in 614,000,000” that a student will be a victim of a school shooting. Nonetheless, Shea said, “one child is too many.”

Shea said that the district will receive an 80% discount to implement ALICE training. “I serve on a doctoral committee where the district will receive an 80% discount to participate in a study to implement ALICE in our district.”

See Dr. Shea’s March 19 presentation to the Board of Education at the 19:48 mark here. 

However, White contended that this relationship could present a conflict and that the doctoral student studying ALICE would be evaluating “how staff like the program,” not “its effectiveness or impact on the kids of our district.”

White also told Village Green that many members of SOMA Justice, working from a form letter provided by the group’s leaders, were contacting Board of Education members to question the implementation of ALICE. The letter express concern that “the presence of armed officers in schools pose a significant risk of danger for students of color,” about “the emotional and mental impact of any program that teaches children to use their own bodies to slow down an attacker,” and takes issue with “Founder and ‘Strategic Thought Leader’ Greg Crane’s history of espousing racist, anti-gay, anti-trans and anti-refugee views publicly and unapologetically on social media.”

Village Green also received a copy of another letter sent to the Board of Education regarding ALICE, this one from local resident Norman Cowie, who wrote that after having “the opportunity to hear Dr Tom Shea field questions about school security” … he was “both surprised and disheartened to learn that I know more about a traffic stop involving a BOE member than a security system named ALICE that many schools have adopted in an effort to respond more effectively to emergencies.”

Cowie wrote that he “was also discouraged by tales of Facebook posts that have apparently made the adoption and implementation of ALICE at SOMSD controversial. For a community that prides itself on tolerance, compassion and informed debate, I find little of it in such posts, or the attacks on BOE members and it’s leadership. Such attacks diminish us all.”

“Do we not all agree that in the wake of our national epidemic of school shootings the protection of our children at school should be our top priority?” wrote Cowie. “How can we afford to not to learn more about ALICE and what it might look like in our schools? What will we say if we fail to act, and, god forbid, something happens? Now is the time to rally alongside our children. If we can’t lead we should turn over the reins of leadership to them.”

SOMSD Interim Superintendent of Schools. Dr. Thomas Ficarra said on May 14 that he was pulling ALICE from the agenda because he wanted a time when there was “less on the agenda” and “time for a Q&A.” (Ficarra made a lengthy presentation that evening on the Facilities and Integration Plan.)

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