Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

ALICE Security Program Presentation Brings Out ‘A Lot of Emotion’ at Board of Ed Meeting

John Ward and Tom Shea at the June 14, 2018 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting

A proposed school security program called ALICE was the subject more debate at the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting on Thursday, June 14.

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.”

During the Superintendent’s update, South Orange-Maplewood School District Director of Security Dr. Thomas Shea took to the microphone with a powerpoint presentation to provide additional information to the community on ALICE, after community members had taken to public speaks to raise concerns about the program at previous meetings and had sent letters to the Board of Education questioning the program.

Three slides are presented here. This story will be updated with the full slide presentation when it is posted by the district.

BOE President Elizabeth Baker stressed that while the district has received grant money to implement a school security program, it had not yet selected one and no vote would take place at Thursday’s meeting. However, a decision on a program should be coming soon: Interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra said he wanted to begin the 2018-19 school year “not with our fingers crossed but with some training and additional security measures.”

With audience members holding signs saying “Alice is Not the Answer,” Shea listed statistics about the increase in school shootings in the past few years. However, he also emphasized the chances of being a victim in a school shooting was similar to getting struck by lightning.

Shea said he had received emails from “scared parents” telling him that if the district wasn’t doing active shooter training it was not prepared. His response, said Shea: “I’m on it.”

Shea reported that the number of “suspicious activity reports” in New Jersey schools increased by a vast amount in 2018, from 28 in 2016 and 32 in 2017 to a whopping 596 this year – a rise he attributed largely to the increased attention on school shootings this year, and the Parkland, FL shooting. He provided examples where he said ALICE training had saved lives.

He ran through a few other alternatives such as Run Hide Fight, Safe Haven and I Love You Guys, pointing out what he found to be deficiencies such as cost, timing, support and effectiveness.

Shea, who was accompanied by John Ward, a doctoral candidate doing a dissertation on ALICE training, said he wanted to debunk some preconceptions about the program. First, Shea said, it is “absolutely categorically false that it’s training elementary school students to attack a shooter.”

Ward testified that students feel more empowered if they know there is a plan to follow, rather than “only sitting and waiting for authorities to arrive.” In the same vein, Shea said he had spoken to student leaders at CHS and the “overwhelming feeling from them is, ‘We don’t like that we’re sitting in a dark room waiting to hear from the police.’ [That] is probably more alarming and frightening than ALICE training.”

Ficarra argued that there have been cases where lockdown doesn’t work. “If you can get out of that door…you are training kids to run and hide as well as lock down.” He added, “the pushback coming from all the agencies mentioned…is that lockdown is not enough and there’s empirical date to show that lockdown alone could cause people to die.”

Shea said to not do any active shooter training would be irresponsible. “We can never rely on ‘hopefully it won’t happen here.’”

Several BOE members expressed reservations about adopting ALICE.

Board member Annemarie Maini said the district should fully identify its overall security needs before adopting a program. “Do we know that lockdown doesn’t work?” she asked, to applause from the audience. “We have a quick response time. Why are we talking about a vendor before we’ve identified our needs?” Maini also cautioned that because of implicit biases, there were concerns that not all children would be treated the same with such a program.  She noted that the MMS gun incident three years ago, in which a 7th grader brought a loaded gun, was handled successfully using existing training.

“I’m worried about [this training] doing more harm than good, especially if it increases the fear of being victimized in the first place,” said Board member Tony Mazzocchi.

Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad agreed, saying the plan was “putting the cart before the horse” and noted her concerns about “jumping on the bandwagon” with a profit-making organization. She also wondered if active shooter training would instill fear into some students, noting that after the 2015 district gun incidents and subsequent code reds the district experienced a few years ago, her son transferred out of the district in part because of his fear seeing armed police officers coming into his classroom. She called it a “horrific” experience for him.

Board member Madhu Pai argued that it was time for the district to act. “It’s been three years since all the code reds and gun incidents. The fact that we haven’t made our schools safer for our kids, shame on us.” She continued, “We are not adequately prepared.”

Board President Elizabeth Baker asked if teachers and administrator could speak to other districts who use ALICE to see if it’s adaptable in an age appropriate way. Other board members mentioned the need to address the needs of special education students and those with limited mobility.

Board member Susie Adamson noted that there was “a lot of emotion around this issue.”

“We have read the many, many emails and heard your voices,” she said to the parents and students in attendance. “We are looking to do the right thing,” Adamson assured the audience and said she wanted to “remind everyone that we hired Dr. Shea unanimously to present these recommendations to make sure our students are safer — not to say I’m supporting ALICE, but we are looking at a variety of security measures.”

Adamson told Shea and Ficarra that she wanted to see a comprehensive security plan for the July Board of Education meeting: “If you could present in that context — to look at the totality — that would be my ask for next month.”

Board 1st Vice President Chris Sabin also talked about ensuring that any training program would be “integrated into everything that we want to accomplish.” Sabin asked, “If it’s not ALICE, what is it?” Noting the 170 emails the Board received after the Parkland FL school shooting in February, Sabin said, “We have to come up with a solution. Not just say, ‘No.'”

Community members then took to the microphone to express opinions and ask questions. Many expressed concerns about ALICE and asked for a modified implementation or an alternative program.

Marilyn Wright, the outgoing CHS HSA President, started with the statement, “I’m here to speak on behalf of the ALICE program.” She said she was “saddened by many comments that were not based on fact” in the online discussions about ALICE. She said her two CHS student children had researched ALICE and said they felt it would make them feel safer. She said she felt that some in the community were trying to turn the discussion into a “political issue” and that action needed to be taken now to ensure safety in the district.

Jessie Wendt, a former South Orange Middle School Home School Association co-president and a parent two CHS students, said that she was in support of ALICE or a similar program being implemented at the high school level — if  staff are effectively trained and special needs students are taken into account. She said she wanted to see access control improvements approved so that those facilities improvement could be made over the summer.

Mara Bernstein read a letter aloud from a group of parents who formed a gun violence deterrence group after the district’s gun incidents of 2015. “As people steeped in gun violence prevention, we oppose bringing the ALICE program to our school district and we support more comprehensive training programs that address many hazardous situations, including but not limited to active-shooter training. We also support strengthening security through a lock-down emergency notification system and facilities improvements.” (Read the full letter here. )

Mia White, a parent of Jefferson and MMS students, said she was “disturbed” by the presentation. “The way that this research was presented was wildly unethical,” said White to applause. “It’s about how you present a  variety of options so that people can make a thoughtful set of decisions. You can’t present one option. This is not the way that we educate each other.

Another parent said that she had research — which she had forwarded to the Board — which showed that “staff does worse [with ALICE] than with zero training, zero!”

Jefferson parent Kathy Greenstone said, “I don’t think anyone is saying we shouldn’t do anything.” In response to Dr. Shea’s assertion that many videos in circulation were inaccurate depictions of ALICE, she asked for videos that did depict actual training so that parents could know what the training does entails.  She also expressed concern that Dr. Shea said he had not assessed how to make the training developmentally appropriate nor ADA compliant and that she wanted to know what ALICE “brought to bear” on those topics.

A father said, “You scared me when you said there was no plan…. There should always be a plan.” He then asked the Board to think of modifications for any plan so as not to frighten younger students.

Khadijah Costley White, a leader of the community group SOMA Justice, began her comments by saying, “I have yet to meet a parent who conducts armed intruder drills in their own homes. … for most people the very idea is absurd on its face,” saying that turning one’s home into a place of “fear and anxiety” is a “betrayal of everything we want and we’ve built for them.” But she said “somehow with school security these concerns fly out the window.”

“We are terrifying our own children in the very spaces where they should feel safe,” said White.  While saying that this would be worth it if the programs were proven effective, White said that Shea had supplied no evidence to support that claim. She suggested that the district would do better to invest more money in counseling — or invest in CPR or swimming lessons, saying that those trainings are proven more effective in promoting safety.

Parent Jill Ryan questioned the political views of ALICE founder Greg Crane and said that she would like the district to patronize businesses that reflected what she referenced as the community’s values. “His bias against Black people, Muslims and homosexuality is plain. … This man’s values are so far out of alignment with those of the majority of our community that I just can’t believe you are choosing to give him our business.”

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