February 1st, 2013

Active shooter trainer: a good idea?

What should you do if a gunman suddenly bursts into your school or workplace? The conventional answer has long been lockdown: hide quietly, lock or barricade doors, turn off lights and equipment and wait for police.

But that passive response frustrates many as mass shootings – and anxiety about public and personal safety – continue to increase. Newer emergency response training programs teach participants to consider ways of fighting back against a shooter. School officials in Canton, Mass., recently implemented an active shooter training program for students and staff known as A.L.i.C.E. (Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate) that covers how to distract or tackle a shooter.

“We don’t teach fighting,” says retired school principal Lisa Crane, who with her husband Greg Crane, a former SWAT team leader, run Response Options in Burleson, Texas, which developed A.L.i.C.E.

A.L.i.C.E. does address swarming techniques – ways people acting together can overtake a gunman – and throwing items to prevent a shooter from aiming.

“At the elementary level, we don’t recommend the swarm technique for kids. We do for teachers. We do teach kids to run, make noise, move, throw things and that they understand where a rally point is,” Crane adds.

Response Options has nearly 2,000 instructors in 27 states who have worked with nearly two million students in K-12 and college settings. After last December’s Newtown, Conn., shooting, weekly hits on the firm’s Web site went from the “hundreds to thousands,” Crane says.

This fighting back component raises the issue of whether such training can lead to more anxiety and do more harm than good.

“There is research to suggest that people recover faster from trauma caused by critical incidents when they felt that they had control during the incident and that they were able to react rather than be passive or victims of the event,” says Andria Amador, CAGS, NCSP, president-elect of the Massachusetts School Psychologist Association and acting director of student services for Boston Public Schools.

Last fall, Amador attended a half-day active shooter and response workshop sponsored by the Spokane, Wash.-based Center for Personal Protection & Safety and organized by the FBI Boston Citizens’ Academy Alumni Association at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

Presenters told participants that while the focus in the past was on getting people in critical situations to seek shelter and stay in one place, there is no one correct way to respond. Amador says she found the workshop useful. Trainings were designed for adults and high school and college age students.

Active shooter training has been offered at the University of Southern Maine for the past five years, but only to groups of staff, says Kristine Bertini, Ph.D., senior psychologist with the university’s health and counseling center.

“Students present themselves at many different emotional states of development and therefore a mass training of students could likely be inappropriate and in some cases could be harmful to individual students,” Bertini says.

Training includes viewing a 20-minute video, “Shots Fired,” which teaches viewers to “get out,” “hide out” or as a last resort, “take out” – use whatever means available to throw things or scream to distract a shooter and then tackle them by attacking from different sides.

Active shooter training sessions aren’t likely to increase anxiety university employees already feel because of recent acts of public violence, “but rather create a better sense of personal well being fortified by education and a plan.”

Massachusetts Aggression Education Center Director Elizabeth K. Englander, Ph.D., a Bridgewater State University psychology professor, believes adults would benefit from active shooter training.

“I think it would make them feel empowered. Just as in any situation, if you have practiced what to do beforehand, then you tend to feel more capable. That’s true for any kind of problem,” Englander says.

However, Englander says children under age 12 or 13 could be traumatized by this subject matter.

“My feeling about it is that the proposed situation is so vanishingly rare, and if it were to happen, the effectiveness and likelihood of a kindergartener throwing a pencil at a shooter armed with a machine gun is not likely to have an impact,” Englander says. “Children should be trained to listen to instructions and that is really it.”

By Janine Weisman

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