This story was produced in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering guns in America.
In January, a group of teachers knelt against a wall at Meadowlawn Elementary School in Indiana while police posing as armed gunmen shot plastic pellets into their backs, causing angry, red welts. Waiting outside, the teachers’ colleagues could hear screaming, the Indiana State Teachers’ Association said, before they were “brought into the room four at a time and the shooting process was repeated.”
After the incident, a group of the teachers considered a lawsuit. The sheriff whose team led the exercise told media his officers had stopped using airsoft guns in training after one of the participants complained.
“Active shooter” training like this has become more popular over the last decade — as the number of school shootings has increased, so too has the desire to prepare teachers and students to face intruders with lethal intentions.
Behind many of the drills is the ALICE Training Institute, the largest for-profit private provider of active-shooting training in the United States. ALICE operates through a “train the trainer” model — anyone can get ALICE certification after two days of in-person training and online testing. That means its precise influence over a specific drill can be difficult to determine. (ALICE also routinely trains police, like those involved in the Meadowlawn drill, who then go into schools to oversee drills.) The company claims to have trained staff at more than 5,500 school districts and at 900 institutions of higher education, with more clients signing up each day. ALICE — an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate — promotes the idea that a “proactive” response to a shooting will enable you to save your life. The company insists that simply locking down a classroom and waiting for help — a “passive” response — will increase your chances of dying.
But little is known about the efficacy of the methods promulgated by ALICE and its like-minded competitors. As the school security industry has boomed, ALICE has influenced a lucrative cottage industry of individual trainers and smaller private companies now working with schools. The growing popularity of “proactive” training models has polarised school-security experts, many of whom argue that that ALICE’s “counter” method, and scenarios that include mock shootings, go too far.
Drills can also be traumatic for the children involved, and schools considering training options have the difficult task of weighing the need for protection from intruders against the risk of doing further harm. “There is no evidence that lockdown drills with kids learning to barricade or defend themselves enhances security,” said Dr. Nancy Rappaport, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. And the drills “may have unintended consequences of creating terror for students.”
Today, the wider school security industry peddles everything from bullet-proof whiteboards to facial-recognition software to transparent backpacks. Worth some $2.7 billion, the industry largely traces back to a single, tragic event: the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. After each subsequent school shooting — notably Sandy Hook in 2012 and Parkland in 2018 — the demand for active shooter training grew, and lockdown drills became more common. Last year there were 116 incidents of gun violence at U.S. schools — up from 54 the previous year, according to data collected by the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
Part of the response to these tragedies has been a cultural shift in responsibility, said Zachary Levinsky, a Canadian academic who has researched drills. After Columbine, schools and law enforcement agencies were suddenly required to plan for the worst-case scenarios, creating a need to manage risk and blame. “Showing that you were trying to mitigate the disaster was the impetus I think for these lockdown drills, and sort of allowing entities like ALICE to crop up,” Levinsky said.
And at least 42 states now have laws requiring emergency drills in schools. Eight of them specify that these must be “active shooter drills.” School are rarely equipped to conduct this kind of training on their own, so they look to law enforcement agencies and private companies like ALICE for answers.
Training is big business in the for-profit market, and ALICE options can be pricey. A 2018 contract for the Alisal Union School District in California showed a total cost of $32,100 (£23,970) over three years for services including online ALICE training for all employees and a two-day “train the trainer” program for district officials. Becoming a certified ALICE instructor, meanwhile, costs between $600 (£448) and $700 (£523).
The official term for this type of training is “options based,” referring to the many ways to respond to a shooting, as opposed to strictly locking down an area. In worst-case scenarios, ALICE advises students and teachers to consider “countering,” or confronting an intruder. ALICE also encourages students to throw objects at intruders to interrupt and distract them. “Some [teachers] tell students to use their books, binders, staplers,” said Corey Mosher, the principal of Athens Area High School in Pennsylvania, whose district adopted ALICE this year. “Others brought items such as golf balls.”
The company offers training and drills both directly, to students and staff, and indirectly, by training teachers and police to become certified instructors, which can lead to inconsistencies in how the program is taught. “We provide ALICE Certified Instructors with guidelines and best practices for implementing training locally,” the company said in a statement after the Meadowlawn drill. “Our instructor resources prioritise safety”. The model has allowed ALICE to spread across the country and become a go-to for many school drills across the country, helping to shape the way a generation of students and educators think about shooting threats.
Inside some of the schools using ALICE, there is enormous support. Mosher said he “fell in love” with the program because it “empowers you as a person to make decisions.” For the youngest students in his district, there’s an ALICE book titled “I’m Not Scared, I’m Prepared.” The “counter” technique is taught only to older students.
In 1999, more than six months after the shooting at Columbine, ALICE founder Greg Crane was working as a police officer in North Richland Hills, Texas. A tip had come into his department that a local woman, true-crime writer Barbara Davis and her 25-year-old son, Troy, were storing marijuana and weapons inside their home. On the morning of December 15, after a “no-knock” search warrant was secured, Crane joined a SWAT team for a raid that would change the course of his career.
The group descended on Davis’s small home in a quiet, manicured neighbourhood, and broke in the door. Within seconds, officer Allen Hill, who was leading the group, fired two shots, striking Troy Davis, who was pronounced dead at hospital. According to Hill, the man had pointed a loaded 9mm pistol at him when they arrived. Barbara Davis — asleep with a gun under her pillow when police arrived — claimed her son was unarmed, wearing his pyjama pants. “He was protecting his home and his mother from some onslaught,” she told me. “We didn’t know what was happening.”
The fallout was swift: Barbara Davis filed a civil lawsuit against Crane and the other officers involved, alleging that Hill was a volatile officer with a history of using excessive force. She claimed that Crane had failed as a SWAT supervisor, inadequately preparing the team for such a high-risk operation. “Had [Crane] followed his own advice, policies and procedures, Barbara Davis’s son would not have been shot and killed,” the complaint read. Crane rejected the account, a copy of the department’s internal report shows, arguing that his team had acted “in the professional manner in which they have been trained.” Crane was ultimately granted qualified immunity, leaving Hill to face an excessive-force claim. The case was settled out of court. Hill says he was never consulted about the settlement, and learned about it on the radio. “I have no nightmares, no regrets whatsoever about shooting the guy that tried to shoot us,” he told me.
Although he was not indicted by a grand jury in 2000, Hill says the department turned its back on him, and his reputation was destroyed. Publicity around the raid had been unrelenting, and Davis’ suit revealed Hill had been disciplined for exposing his penis to colleagues on the job — a habit that earned him the nickname “penie.” (Crude humour was a way of coping with the trauma of police work, he told me.) Hill resigned from the police force not long after the raid, but found it difficult to pick up work: He said he was turned down for jobs as a paramedic, a firefighter and a garbage collector. He started visiting shooting ranges where he would persuade people to pay him a few dollars for help with their shooting technique. He felt a strong calling toward churches and mosques, which he believed were targets. He told religious leaders he could help them prepare for an attack. Apprehensive, all but one turned him away.
Several years after the raid, Greg Crane also resigned, citing personal reasons on his resignation form. Around that time, Hill said, the two men spent Christmas Eve together with their wives, Lisa and Linda. Over dinner, the couples discussed what happened at Columbine, and Hill told Crane about his new business plan: teaching people how to respond to active shooter situations.
By Hill’s telling, the pair decided that Crane would be the public face of the business, named Response Options, while Hill would stay in the background, because of the negative publicity he’d received. Together they would present new ideas about how to respond to shootings, refuting the lockdown-only model that was standard at the time.
“I saw a void, based on experience, that offered a big fat target to the bad guys and [I] thought of ways to improve on what was already in place,” Hill said. Under their model, teachers and students could lock down classrooms, sure — but they could also run away or throw objects at intruders to daze and distract them. They might even fight back by swarming or tackling aggressors.
“We received a whole lot of kickback and resistance,” Hill said. “Criticised openly in the media. That’s when we understood that bad publicity is better than no publicity.”
In 2005, Response Options won a contract with the Burleson Independent School District in Texas to provide training to some of the district’s students and staff, making the district the first to adopt what would become the ALICE approach.
It wasn’t long before the company’s methods started to raise concerns. In 2006, a video made by the company, which was still doing business as Response Options, aired on local television. It showed children throwing objects at an actor posing as an armed intruder, and then attacking him. Parents contacted the school, alarmed at what they saw.
The district sent a letter home to its 8,500 families: “We need to stress that Burleson Independent School District does not, nor will we support teaching our students to attack an intruder,” the letter read. It was signed by 10 of the district’s 11 school principals. The only one who didn’t sign was Crane’s wife, Lisa, then the head of Norwood Elementary.
In the mid 2000s, Hill left Response Options after a falling out with Crane, who rebranded the company the ALICE Training Institute. There’s no trace of Hill in its marketing materials.
Hill, who said he helped develop ALICE’s methodology, still conducts training through his own outfit, RAIDER Training Group, which spreads a similar message about taking an “empowered” approach. “I get motivated and excited to teach this program because it means you have an option to survive as opposed to comply and die,” he said.
Crane declined to be interviewed for this story, but a representative for ALICE said in an emailed response that the company has “been out of touch with Allen for many years.”
“A lot has changed since those early days,” another added in a separate email, “and the program continues to evolve each year.”
This November, a private equity firm named Riverside Company made a “significant investment” in ALICE (representatives for both companies declined to answer questions about whether ALICE was sold), and a new leadership team was announced, including CEO Jean-Paul Guilbault, a former tech executive. The company also acquired NaviGate Prepared, which provides threat assessment software to schools, and SafePlans, a school security company with contracts across the country, further expanding ALICE’s reach in the education system.
Traditional lockdown remains the dominant way to deal with threats of shootings in American schools, but in the last decade, the popularity of “options-based” training has mushroomed. The federal government endorses an approach called “Run, Hide, Fight,” which was developed by the City of Houston Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security in 2011 as a free resource, and has since been adopted by the FBI. The instruction seems relatively clear: Run, hide, or fight. It’s certainly catchy and easy to remember. But critics say the crispness is deceptive. Run where? Hide where? Fight how?
Kenneth Trump, a frequent critic of options-based training who runs his own private school-security company in Cleveland, says that Run, Hide, Fight was never meant to be used in schools, and has become more mainstream than originally intended. “It was geared toward businesses,” he told me. “It expanded into anywhere and everywhere because people were looking for something to grab hold of, and that idea became popular.”
When I put this claim to Jackie Miller, part of the Houston team that originally created the program, she said it was “strictly looked at for the general public.” When they released a promotional video on YouTube video in 2012, “it went viral very quickly and we began to get contacted by different organizations, schools included, to adopt it and use it.” She added that, “We have talked to schools over the years about it being for the teachers, for the administrative staff, and not necessarily the tool to train kids.” Despite this, the idea of fighting back has become normalized, even for school-aged children.
A 2013 guide to developing school emergency operations plans, produced by the Department of Education, Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, puts forward the Run, Hide, Fight model as a possible supplement to other protocols, like lockdowns. A representative told me the recommendation “extended only to adults and only as a last resort.”
This April, a gunman entered a classroom at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and began firing at the students. A campus-wide message was sent out: ”Shots reported near Kennedy. Run, Hide, Fight. Secure yourself immediately.” Riley Howell, a 21-year-old student, charged at the gunman, who shot him twice. When Howell was just inches from him, the man fired a third shot and the bullet traveled into Howell’s brain. He died of his injuries. Although the university offered ALICE training on campus, there is no evidence Howell attended. In the wake of his death, the university said it would increase its ALICE training sessions.
A little more than a week later, a shooting broke out at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado. Kendrick Castillo, 18, lunged at the gunman with two other students by his side. Castillo was killed, just two weeks before his graduation. Brendan Bialy, one of the other students who charged the gunman, told reporters: “I refuse to be a victim. Kendrick refused to be a victim.” (Students at the school were not trained in ALICE.)
Should students have to be heroes? Critics of options-based training may accept that if a person is left with no choice, they should do what they can to save themselves. But they take issue with the idea of promoting and glamorizing this approach. They say that publicity surrounding these cases, coupled with messaging promulgated by training companies, risk creating the impression in the minds of students that they need to be the protectors, rather than the ones who are protected.
“I don’t think we should talk so much about heroic acts, because it may move kids to do such acts and lose their life,” said Frank Farley, a professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University who studies heroism.
Teachers, too, have made headlines for stopping shootings. In 2018, 29-year-old teacher Jason Seaman tackled a gunman to the floor while his students hid at the back of the classroom. He later told the Indianapolis Star that he felt ALICE training provided at his school had prepared him to act.
This May, Keanon Lowe, the head football coach at Parkrose High School in Portland, Oregon, managed to coax a student to let go of a shotgun he had brought into a classroom. Footage of the incident shows Lowe hugging the boy and talking to him after safely passing the gun to another teacher. “I think he needed a hug more than he needed to be tackled to the ground,” Lowe told ESPN.
Tom Czyz, a former Onondaga County Sheriff’s detective and a SWAT operator who founded the school-security company Armoured One in 2012, said he believes that cases of children and young adults fighting back against intruders are understandable, given that their generation has grown up with a constant fear of shootings.
“Even when they’re not trained, instinctively they’ve had enough and they’re fighting back,” Czyz told me. “The physical fight is their way of fighting back against what’s going on, and sadly we’ve come to that as a society.”
Czyz said he is worried that the accelerated growth of the private market for active shooter training has caused problems with quality control. “When we started this company there was barely anyone doing what we’re doing, and now it seems like every day there’s five new companies that are opening up businesses and claiming to be experts and claiming to have solutions,” he said. “A lot of them are out for money.”
““I don’t think we should talk so much about heroic acts, because it may move kids to do such acts and lose their life."”
There are no national standards or specific licensing requirements dictating who can or can’t start an active shooter training company, he said, which is part of the problem. “People are claiming to be subject-matter experts because they feel they are, or have written a book,” he said.
Czyz said he is so convinced that teachers are the ones who need to be prepared that he doesn’t train children in active shooter drills, only in preventative measures and situational awareness. He doesn’t want to risk training a potential shooter, and was spooked by reports that the Parkland shooter may have used his knowledge of the school’s drill procedure to guide his attack. (The gunman reportedly set off the fire alarm before his rampage, which may have complicated the school’s lockdown.)
Czyz is also opposed to staging realistic or frightening training sessions or drills. “When we do fire drills, have you ever seen a school light a room on fire and scare the shit out of people to make them react better?” he said. “It doesn’t happen.”
Even in school communities dealing with tragedy, there is confusion about the right approach. In October, a Florida commission investigating the Parkland shooting recommended that schools reduce active shooter drills, despite a new Florida law mandating them for once a month. “Since that time, some students, educators and parents have expressed concern that the drills are too frequent and potentially traumatizing to some students, elementary school students in particular,” a draft copy of the commission’s report said.
In 2014, a long-time employee at the Iowa Homeland Security Department, David Johnston, sent an email to members of the Iowa School Safety Alliance, a group set up to help improve school safety in the state. Some of its members had grown uneasy about the use of ALICE in schools. “There are very strong proponents for both sides of the ALICE argument,” he wrote in a copy of the email obtained by The Trace through a Freedom of Information request. “Some people think it’s the greatest training ever. Others think it is going to get more kids killed. As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”
One member of the group, Jerry Loghry, was especially concerned. A manager at EMC Insurance, which covered most of the schools in the area, he had witnessed a sharp rise in claims for medical bills from drill-related injuries. By September, EMC had paid out more than a quarter of a million dollars for losses related to drills led by an assortment of companies. (The losses included emergency room bills for teachers and staff who were injured in drills.) Today, he told me, that figure is “significantly higher.”
Such injuries have led to multiple lawsuits. In 2014, a middle school teacher in Boardman, Oregon, filed suit against the police, his school district and a private training company, claiming he sustained “life-altering injuries,” including a fractured hip and neck, during an active shooter drill. The case was settled out of court.
In addition to physical harm, lawsuits also tell of alleged psychological harm that can be caused by drills. In 2015, Linda McClean, Oregon elementary school teacher, sued the Pine Eagle School District, school officials and a private security company connected to a board member, alleging that an unannounced active shooter drill had caused her to develop PTSD so severe she could never enter a classroom again. (There’s no indication the private security company conducted the drill.)
According to court records, on the afternoon of April 26, 2013 — about four months after the Sandy Hook shooting — McLean was reading emails at her desk when she heard a loud bang. Swiveling around to identify the source of the noise, she saw a masked man burst into her classroom wearing black pants, a black hoodie, and goggles. The man pointed a gun at McLean, who didn’t know it was a drill and thought she was going to die. He pulled the trigger and a loud bang cracked out, smoke erupting from the gun. “You’re dead,” he said, running out of the room. McLean and several other teachers, who had previously been to a presentation on Run, Hide, Fight, rushed toward the exit. “Two of them collided and one fell,” court records said. Another teacher wet herself. Reached by telephone, McLean’s lawyer said the case was settled for an undisclosed amount, with a confidentiality agreement attached. McLean has never returned to teaching.
Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school security company, predicts that as more lawsuits are filed, the industry will be forced to change. But these cases can be messy. Because so many parties are often involved in drills — including local law enforcement agencies, private training companies, school districts and staff — there are often many separate legal claims.
To minimize liability issues and potential harm, many drills are now optional, and participants are often asked to sign waivers acknowledging the risks involved. A copy of an ALICE waiver from 2018 lists “minor injuries such as scratches, bruises and sprains; major injuries such as eye injury, loss of sight, joint or back injuries, heart attacks, and concussions,” and, finally, “catastrophic injuries including paralysis and death.”
The company continues to defend its methods, arguing that its training is in step with Department of Homeland Security guidelines and has been used in 17 documented incidents with no fatalities. Company representatives also contend that a new study published in the Journal of School Violence confirms its methods work. The study, which compared milder lockdown drills to options-based training, simulated shootings in both classrooms and open areas, tallying the number of people who were “shot” and the time it took for the incidents to end. The ALICE method was “found to end more quickly and significantly increased the survivability of persons in active shooter incidents.” A post on ALICE’s website declared: “This research confirmed what we have known for years.”
However, both lead researchers on the paper were certified ALICE trainers, and simulations were conducted by an ALICE employee. The study’s co-lead author, Dr. Cheryl Lero Jonson, told me she has trained in many other methods, including traditional lockdown protocols and Run, Hide, Fight. Still, she acknowledged, more research was needed.
Michael Dorn of Safe Havens International said his concerns about the private market went beyond ALICE. “There is much discussion in the field about this and we are seeing a lot of interest in better programs than any of those being offered at present — none of which have been validated with proper testing using scenarios as they should be,” he said.
Indeed, there is not enough scientific data to definitively show that any one response model is most effective at saving lives. This is partly because of the ethical and practical difficulty in studying shooting responses — and because much of what we know is merely anecdotal.
“From a research perspective, the current focus is increasingly looking at the effects of trauma attached to these types of drills,” said Trump. “The general rule is ‘do no harm’ and legitimate questions are being raised about options-based training going over-the-top in comparison to the accepted best practices of lockdowns for the past couple decades.”
“Where all these for-profit companies have done a disservice, and frankly where the school districts have done themselves a disservice, is not choosing options that have data to support them, and when that data isn’t there, finding that data or making it happen,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of Criminal Justice at State University of New York at Oswego, who is in the middle of a large research project looking at lockdown drills in a school district in upstate New York.
The paucity of evidence hasn’t stopped schools and governments from throwing increasing amounts of money into active shooter training. Last year, the government announced an additional $70 million (£52m) in funding for school security and training. This year, as the public outcry over mass shootings reached a new pitch, Congress failed to enact any serious gun reforms. But in October, Senate Republicans introduced legislation that would boost access to active shooter training funds from the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security by law enforcement agencies and first responders.
Parents of school-aged children, meanwhile, remain lodged in the middle. Their attention is focused on the very question that underpins the active shooter industry, one that everyone and no one seems able to answer: What can we do to protect our kids?
Additional reporting by Champe Barton.