In Case of Emergency: How Area Schools Prepare for the Worst

Debbie LaPlaca

As August spins through its summer daze, parents will become increasingly barraged with back-to-school notices, such as supply lists, teacher assignment, bus pickup location and time, or student drop-off procedures.

It ramps up on opening day when kids arrive home laden with notices and forms detailing school lunch, classroom rules, virtual backpacks and online parent portals.

What parents won’t see or hear, not even if they ask, is exactly what administrators and law enforcement are doing to protect the school and their children against an active shooter or violent intruder.

For the nearly 26,000 students in Worcester Public Schools this fall, $125,000 is budgeted for software, training and safety protocols designed to protect the kids and the about 3,000 on staff.

Additional monies are allocated to buy and install the hardware that tightens building security, such as panic buttons, cameras, and door locks. But detail on what hardware is used and where is held from the public, with good reason.

Robert F. Pezzella, school safety director for Worcester Public Schools, says it best: “Everyday our procedures and protocols on safety are adapting and changing. We have to be able to adapt to a violent intruder in ways that keep our students and staff safe. To be public about that, or to tell parents what our protocols are, would be severely compromising our students’ safety.”

The decision to keep secret specifics on devices and the various response plans is founded on experience.

You may remember the moment you heard of the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, when two seniors went on a shooting spree that killed 12 students and one teacher. More than 20 others were wounded before the teens turned their guns on themselves and committed suicide.

A shocked nation reeled and mourned for the victims and their families.

If you were too young to be aware then, as a parent today you’re certainly familiar with the fallout. The Columbine shootings quickly changed the way school administrators and law enforcement handled school security.

Yet, the shootings have continued.

The Washington Post reports that 234 shootings in K-12 schools during the 20 years since Columbine, have killed 144 people and injured 302.

No region of the country has been spared the horror.

Closest to home here in Massachusetts was at Sandy Hook Elementary, where, on December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old entered the building and shot and killed 26 people: 20 children between six and seven years old, and six adult staff members.

This massacre is looked upon as a national turning point in recognizing lockdown-only protocols were not enough.

So, what can school administrators tell parents about their active shooter and violent intruder preparedness?

In one word, ALICE.

Shortly after Columbine, law enforcement professional Greg Crane founded the ALICE Training Institute. It is reportedly the first program in the country to provide staff and students with an option-based response to an active shooter or violent intruder gaining entry to a school, a business or organization.

ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evaluate) teaches proactive responses in addition to the traditional lockdown.

Worcester Public Schools is in its third year of subscribing to the fee-based training.

“Every staff member is required to take the ALICE e-learning course, followed by refresher courses,” Pezzella said.

ALICE drills, where a live active shooter scenario is played out, have been conducted after school with staff in 22 of the 44 Worcester school buildings. The plan, Pezzella said, is to grow that number this year.

Attending each drill with Pezzella are eight Worcester police officers, who are certified ALICE trainers.Five of the eight are full-time school resource officers in Worcester high schools.

Administrators in each of the 44 schools are mandated to conduct two lockdown drills per year. For grade 3 and up, one of the two drills is to be ALICE.

For parents asking: Are the drills themselves frightening children and causing undue stress? Pezzella said, “We encourage principals and teachers to have age-appropriate conversations with their students when they have that ALICE lockdown drill. Principals notify parents in advance so they may also have conversations with their children about active shooter situations.”

According to ALICE, practice is the essence of learning – the more a group drills, the better the chances of successfully overcoming violent incidents.

Tens of thousands nationwide have taken the two-day training course to become certified instructors, according to the ALICE website. And more than 4,200 K-12 schools across the country have received the training to date.

Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School in Charlton is among them.

Vocational schools face unique challenges in that many offer services to the public.

For Bay Path, its Hilltop Restaurant is open for lunch, its cosmetology shop offers manis and pedis during school hours, and the building houses a bank.

Specifics on the training, drills, and security devices are also closely guarded at Bay Path.

“We don’t broadcast out what our steps are so everyone knows our plan. It makes it difficult to be safe when everyone knows what you’re going to do during an incident,” Principal Clifford Cloutier said.

Other than the need for extra measures to secure public access points at Bay Path, the school practices many of the safety and security protocols used in Worcester.

Its 1,125 students and 185 staff have participated in one active shouter ALICE drill.

“We try not to panic the kids on this,” Cloutier said. “Last year we did an active shooter in the building scenario with students, and the teachers explained the plan to the kids.”

Cloutier added the majority of training is conducted with teachers, along with separate sessions for other segments of adults, such as bus drivers.

Other shared security programs that both school administrators would talk about are IN FORCE911 and Stop the Bleed.

Both school systems subscribed to the IN FORCE911 service last year. It’s a computer and mobile device app that gives police real time detail down to the classroom number initiating an alert and school-specific information, such as a building schematic.

Building staff are alerted to a crisis through the app, which opens a chat room where live detail can be shared among police, teachers and administrators, such as an intruder’s location in the building and whether it’s safe for students to flee.

Pezzella said the app, that compliments ALICE, was launched last year in the Worcester middle and high schools, with a plan to expand to the elementary schools this year.

The Stop the Bleed campaign was established in 2015 through a collaborative effort by the Department of Homeland Security, American College of Surgeons, as well as national organizations and corporations. The course gives bystanders, such as teachers and students, the training and tools to stop traumatic bleeding until professional help arrives.

In Worcester, the Fire Department has started Stop the Bleed training with administrators. At Bay Path, nine staff members on the school’s emergency response team have Stop the Bleed kits, which are also stationed throughout the building.