In the fall of 2017, a group of school administrators from Ohio assembled at the front of a meeting hall at the Sheraton in Downtown Nashville, Tennessee. It was the first annual conference held by the ALICE Training Institute, and the officials had gathered to recount how the company’s controversial active-shooter training regimen had saved lives.
On January 20 of that year, a student at West Liberty-Salem High School, in Salem, Ohio, brought a shotgun to school. The 17-year-old boy shot one of his classmates in a bathroom, leaving him badly injured. Then the gunman left the bathroom and fired several more rounds into an empty hallway, before holing up in a stall.
In the Nashville conference hall, West Liberty Principal Greg Johnson said the school’s ALICE training had led administrators to evacuate all students following the first reports of gunfire. Indeed, evacuation is a cornerstone of the ALICE protocol — it’s literally the ‘E’ in ALICE.
The Company Behind America’s Scariest School Shooter Drills
But Johnson also recalled how he and his colleague, Andy McGill, an assistant principal, left the safety of their offices and ran directly toward the gunfire, an explicit break with ALICE protocols, which recommends confronting shooters only as a last resort.
“That’s the only thing that he wasn’t probably supposed to do,” quipped the school’s superintendent from the side of the stage. Laughter rippled through the room.
According to the administrators’ account, the decision to confront the boy resolved the situation. They recalled how he slid his weapon under the stall and lay down on the bathroom floor as soon as he heard McGill’s voice.
Nonetheless, ALICE holds up the incident at West Liberty-Salem as an example of its training in action. It features a description of the shooting on its website, and in two press releases claims that school administrators prevailed by following the most controversial tenet of the ALICE philosophy: “countering” intruders. The two releases say that staff in the vicinity “rushed” and “overwhelm[ed]” the shooter, and “pinned him to the floor using body weight and gravity.”
Last month, The Trace published an investigation into ALICE, which highlighted the fact that little evidence exists to support its methods. ALICE told reporter Sylvia Varnham O’Regan that its teachings had been used in 17 incidents with no fatalities. When we requested a detailed list of those incidents, ALICE stopped responding. But under a tab titled “ALICE in Action” on its website, the company lists 18 incidents in which its training was used and no one died.
A close examination of the cases reveals that ALICE often claims credit for what experts say is common advice for responding to gun-related threats. And in some cases — like the one at West Liberty-Salem — students and staff deviated from ALICE protocols.
We sent ALICE a list of 13 questions about what we found, but the company did not respond to any of them.
An ALICE press release concerning a 2018 shooting at Springfield Mall in Springfield, Pennsylvania, typifies the company’s tendency to cast every incident as a victory. The posting on its website, titled “Mom Participated in Her Own Survival,” describes the quick thinking of a trained teacher who was shopping at the mall when shots rang out. It also quotes from a thankful email ALICE says the teacher wrote to her principal and superintendent after the shooting. “She recalled her ALICE Training and evacuated immediately with her children while informing others,” the release states. It doesn’t mention that the shooting actually occurred outside of the mall, in a parking lot, or that it was connected to a personal dispute.
Dr. Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego who studies lockdown drills, said labeling the teacher’s response as “ALICE in action,” as the press release did, was a stretch. “When a gun is going off in a room or a building, everyone’s fight or flight is going to kick in,” she said. “To say someone stopped and had this rational recall that ALICE said to evacuate a building — I think it’s difficult to make that connection.”
Nearly half of the ALICE press releases tout incidents in which proactive safety measures were implemented without a discernible effect on the outcome. Either the threat turned out to be a false alarm, or the measures hardly differed from common sense responses, like fleeing from gunfire.
One such press release recounts a situation in which a teacher had a bus pull over after noticing a child with a gun, which turned out to be a pellet gun. Another describes reports of a lockdown after rifle-wielding men were spotted near a school campus; news reports reveal it was actually two teenagers with rifle-shaped pellet guns. A third describes a lockdown following gunfire on a college campus. When we interviewed a school security officer present that day, we learned that a man had accidentally shot himself in the school’s parking lot while trying to remove a gun from his car’s glove box. According to the security officer, the man said he intended to wave the gun at two women who had confronted him about dating them both at once.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these responses, Schildkraut said. They just don’t differ from standard, non-ALICE, procedures. “It’s a really significant misnomer that standard lockdown is different from options-based [ALICE] lockdown,” she said. “Sure, we don’t tell [children] to fight,” in a standard lockdown drill. “We also aren’t saying that if you get caught in a hallway, you should sit down and throw your hands up.”
In the few instances in which students and teachers came face to face with shooters, the narratives suggest that alternatives to the company’s signature combat-focused approach were effective. For example, at North Scott Junior High in Eldridge, Iowa, in 2018, a seventh-grader took out a handgun during his social studies class. He stood up, aimed the gun at his teacher, and pulled the trigger. The safety was on, so the gun didn’t fire.
At a moment like this, if you can’t escape, ALICE’s protocols would suggest “countering” by swarming the shooter or bombarding him with binders, pencils, and backpacks.
The social studies class that day at North Scott Junior High did none of these things. Students remained still, and the teacher softened her voice. “It looks like you’re having a really bad day,” she said. She approached the gunman and walked him from the room to the school’s counselor. Nobody was hurt.
ALICE still considered this a victory for its training. “The situation was handled quickly, and the teacher was able to calmly counter and disarm the student,” the release reads. “The staff practices ALICE training to prepare for these situations. Thankfully, it paid off.”
Of all the 18 cases we examined, the ALICE method seems to have made a discernible difference in only one. In keeping with ALICE’s “counter” approach, Jason Seaman, a teacher at Noblesville West Middle School in Indiana, threw a basketball at an armed student before tackling him to the ground in May of 2018. The gunman shot Seaman and one other student. Both survived their injuries, and Seaman credited ALICE with preparing him for the attack.
It’s this sort of story that endears ALICE to so many of the schools that use its curriculum. In interviews, ALICE-trained teachers and security officers who have faced active-shooter incidents overwhelmingly praised the program, saying that it gave personnel new confidence. To them, that confidence outweighs any lack of clarity around the program’s effectiveness.
West Liberty-Salem’s principal, Greg Johnson, for example, said that even though ALICE may not have directly saved lives during the shooting at his school, he thinks the response improved upon older lockdown policies.
“Those students and teachers didn’t wait for instructions,” he told The Trace. “That’s a big part of the ALICE training, too. You’re trained, but you’re also expected to think about what the best response for us is at this time, instead of waiting for administration to tell you what to do.”
Principal Michael Grady of Dixon High School in Dixon, Illinois, which faced its own active-shooter incident during a graduation practice in May of 2018, agreed. He said the school’s pre-ALICE lockdown plan was inadequate, and left administrators and students feeling like they would be helpless if a gunman targeted their school. By contrast, he said, “ALICE empowers kids and staff members to feel like they can do something. If someone comes into the room, they’re gonna be met with resistance.”
Every ALICE-trained person interviewed for this story said that the training imparted a sense of safety for teachers and students alike. Whether that proves ALICE’s efficacy, or simply the strength of its branding, is unclear.
“There’s a vested interest in getting people afraid,” said Schildkraut of ALICE’s marketing efforts. “Because then they buy. If no program has data behind it and you say, ‘Look at our program in action,’ people will drink it up.”