Northland schools take a stronger stance against dangerous threats
Lock the door, turn out the lights and huddle under a desk.
Since the mass school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, that method of guarding against an armed intruder has been commonplace in the nation's schools.
But in the wake of more recent deadly school shootings — most visibly the one that took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida — the majority of Twin Ports schools are adding security features and changing the way they prepare for that nightmare scenario.
With five state-mandated lockdown drills per year, Proctor High School principal Tim Rohweder said your typical high school graduate has been "taught 65 times to sit and do nothing."
"If you choose to do nothing, that's probably the worst decision," he said.
About a dozen area school districts and charters consulted for this story have moved to an active shooter training model that preaches "run, hide, fight" — the approach recommended by the federal government — or the similar, popular ALICE training, founded after Columbine and in place in nearly one-third of the country's school districts.
Plans for locked building entries, bullet-resistant window glaze and security cameras took up the time of many school leaders this past summer, with just about every district in the region angling for a cut of new state money meant for school safety improvements.
An annual national poll released recently by Phi Delta Kappa International, an association of professional educators, found one in three parents feared for their child's physical safety at school. Less than one-third were confident their schools could stop an attack.
In this vein, school leaders are faced with a huge undertaking, wanting to address the intensified concerns of families and staff and balancing those with available resources and the need to provide welcoming spaces.
"You want parents to feel pretty darn comfortable dropping their kids off at your building," said Hermantown superintendent Kerry Juntunen. "In this position, now all I think about are the worst things that can happen. It's kind of painful."
Some school districts, like Proctor and Hermantown, have been using ALICE for a couple of years. The Duluth school district will start this school year, with a July approval from its School Board to spend $72,000 on training over the next three years.
Superintendent Bill Gronseth compared it to fire and tornado drills.
"The likelihood isn't as high as a lot of other threats we all face every day, but it is better to be prepared," Gronseth said.
ALICE stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate. Its founder, Greg Crane, said it's an options-based model that teaches people to remove themselves from a dangerous situation or "render it no longer dangerous."
It includes training for kids and staff on how to alert the right people to potential threats, inform building occupants in plain language of an actual threat, how to barricade a room during a lockdown, how to escape and how to distract a shooter by throwing things at them — a book, a pencil case, a shoe — with the end goal of disarming. Crane said the training for the youngest children is age appropriate, and is based on the "stranger danger" method of "countering."
"Yell, scream ... poke him in the eye, kick him in the groin," he said of what's taught to children to get away from a potential abductor. "Our philosophy with ALICE is no different. Even young children have the ability to do something to interfere with his ability to shoot accurately."
In most area schools, a group of educators are trained by ALICE employees, and they train everyone else. In Duluth, an online method will also be used for staff.
Superior, Lake Superior and Cook school districts also use ALICE, along with the charters Duluth Edison, Harbor City International and North Shore Community School. Esko, Cloquet and Marshall School use something similar.
Some parents have been asking for the training.
"Active shooter training is necessary," said Breanna Rodgers, mom to kids in three different Duluth schools.
When Denfeld High School was the target of a threat via social media last school year, Rodgers kept her daughter home.
In today's climate, she said, "It's scary and nerve-wracking to send my kids to school. And if they fear for their safety, they are not going to get that education."
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken recommends ALICE or similar preparation models because they impart "critical thinking skills to find the best outcomes."
"Lockdowns are still important, but there are other things," he said. "Once the door is breached, you have to have another plan ... you look at the specific situation you're in and what will afford you and your students the greatest likelihood of survival."
That could mean leaving a ground floor classroom through a window, he said, or leaving through a nearby exit. The training, he said, is nothing as deep or frequent as what law enforcement endures, but even a few times a year could make a difference.
"If, God forbid, this happens here, it shouldn't be the first time you've considered it," Tusken said.
But national security expert Ken Trump, of National School Safety and Security Services, highlights several problems with a model like ALICE, largely with the notion students can fend off an attack, including kids with special needs and those who are very young.
"Somehow arguing we can teach them to throw things: take a pencil case or an iPad to a gunfight?" he said. "That's insane."
Evacuations, too, can cause problems for law enforcement who might be struggling to find a shooter in a crowd of people running, he said.
He sees lockdowns and consistent staff training in crisis leadership as a better way.
"Focus on the human side," he said.
While federal agencies recommend the run, hide, fight model, the fighting element is meant only for adults.
'Peace of mind'
At Edison's K-5 Raleigh Academy on Friday, the school practiced the evacuation component of ALICE. A voice over the public address system alerted everyone to leave the building, and kids lined up at their classroom doors, out onto the sidewalk in short order. Lines of solemn kindergartners and squirrely fourth graders were led by teachers to an offsite rally point.
Dean of students Kristin Regas spoke through a megaphone to the 300-plus students assembled, applauding their efforts.
"It's OK if you're not in a straight line," she said. "Remember, some of you have talked about this this week. You might be scared. It's OK. But you're prepared."
Regas was referencing the ALICE-supplied book for young children called "I'm not scared, I'm prepared."
In a message sent to families, Duluth Edison Charter Schools said it wasn't asking students and teachers to subdue a shooter "outside of their secure area." But training methods will teach students to cause chaos and distractions if faced with a life or death situation. The schools will not teach young children to try to overcome an attacker.
North Shore Community School third grader Adrienne Erickson said ALICE training at her school last year included teaching the kids to scatter around the room and hide in the event of a dangerous person on campus.
If someone with a weapon were to enter the room, she said, "the teacher would do something about it."
Pat Andrews teaches seventh grade at Hermantown Middle School. He's been through the training by official ALICE employees and went into it with some skepticism, he said. Completing the program, which simulated an active shooter by firing Airsoft guns at participants, left him a "believer."
"In the worst possible scenario any teacher or student could face, you feel empowered to do something," he said. Plus, it's training that can be used in any public place. "That's peace of mind."
Active shooter training typically includes planning where children can be reunited with their families and other forms of crisis management.
Stacey Hayes and Betsy West-Sherman each have kids in Duluth schools. They worked together to advocate for ALICE, and continue to push for more secure school entries.
Both moms spoke of the ease of entering their children's schools through the office without being stopped. Hayes, who has gone so far as to buy her Harbor City International School-attending son a bulletproof backpack insert, points to Denfeld High School's arrangement as what every school should have.
Entry into Denfeld means speaking to someone at a window and signing in before being buzzed into the office. All other doors are locked. Most district schools easily allow entry into the school interior through the office, although a few have begun manually locking office doors and opening them when necessary. That's not realistic, however, for a school like the 1,600-student East High School.
A buzzer system such as Denfeld's is the top priority in Duluth's request for a chunk of the $25 million approved by the Legislature this year for the state's nearly 500 school districts and charter schools, an amount that many district leaders said would do very little to meet the vast security needs of schools.
Each school building is eligible for $500,000. Duluth asked for $6 million, but the district is likely to receive just a fraction of that.
The first-come, first-served grants will be awarded at the end of the month based on a priority system that says secure entries and communication systems come first. Half the money also needs to go outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Duluth has also teamed with the police department to apply for a federal grant in the hopes that more of what's desired can be purchased. Other priorities include some bullet-resistant window glaze, replacement of security cameras and their hard-drives and a background-check system — including sex offender registries—for each school. Many districts, including Cloquet, Hermantown and Proctor, already use that.
Most of the schools and districts surveyed already have or are working toward buzzer-access for their offices that includes viewing the person first. Many are looking for money to improve their communication and camera systems, and to add window glaze. Several, like Duluth, Superior and Hermantown already have school resource officers, or will for the new school year, like Cloquet.
Duluth Edison schools already purchased emergency supply buckets for lockdowns, and ladders.
One thing some schools are pushing is more simple: reminding kids to not open locked doors for people. It's a big problem, Hermantown's Juntunen said.
Keeping kids and staff safe through training for threats and "target-hardening" isn't enough, said several school leaders and Tusken.
Adequate mental health resources are vital, but it's an understaffed area in many schools in the Twin Ports and throughout the state. The PDK poll found that 76 percent of those surveyed said money should be spent on mental health services before armed guards at schools.
Outlets for kids to relay potentially life-threatening information, like anonymous tip-lines, and good student-staff relationships are essential, said Trump, the security expert.
Most school shooters are students inside the school, he said, so "the No. 1 way we find out about weapons in a school is when kids come forward and tell an adult they trust."
Marshall School's middle school principal Karen Snyder agreed.
"If you see something, hear something, you've got to say something," she said. "It's the best defense."
Getting to kids who are "in distress" is crucial, said Cloquet High School principal Steve Battaglia.
"We've got 30 doors, 800 kids," he said. "If they are hell-bent on finding their way in at some point they will find that way. Communication and seeking kids out, making sure kids are comfortable is much more proactive than thinking we are going to harden the shell and everyone is going to be safe forever."
Is active shooter training traumatic?
While still rare, school shootings are widely publicized and traumatic. That creates anxiety, said Essentia Health's Dr. Elena Metcalf, a child/adolescent psychiatrist.
She sees active shooter training in the context of other public safety campaigns, like fire and tornado drills.
"In general, preparing for possible emergencies improves the likelihood to have an adequate response to them and ultimately decreases anxiety," she said.
Something like ALICE "transforms students and teachers into active protagonists rather than passive victims," she said, which would improve psychological recovery after a traumatic event.
Parents should talk to their kids about the training and encourage them to ask questions, name their fears and validate their feelings, correcting misconceptions.
"Model a healthy expression of fear, coping and how to put it in perspective," Metcalf said, "telling them what's being done to keep them safe. ... Remind kids they safely navigate dangers every day."
Signs a child might need help include regressive behaviors, trouble focusing, difficulty separating, mood changes and stomach and headaches.
Superior schools district administrator Amy Starzecki stressed the importance of schools letting families know about threat preparations.
"From a national and local level, there is a heightened awareness of school safety," she said, and staff and families want reassurance that something is being done. "If you don't, people think nothing is happening."