Countering the Media Narrative

Positive Outcomes of an Active Assailant Protocol

As schools reopen this fall, districts not only have to navigate the challenges of COVID-19, but also have to resume regular emergency drills, including active assailant response trainings. While mass school shootings are exceptionally rare, they elicit strong emotional responses.

Target Hardening

In an effort to prevent and mitigate the harm of a shooting, schools have increasingly installed target-hardening measures, such as metal detectors and access control measures, and hired school resource officers. However, one of the most controversial responses is the introduction of active assailant response training among students.

With the number of schools across the United States implementing active assailant response training growing substantially, so, too has the debate surrounding their effectiveness and psychological impact. On one side, advocates argue that training students saves lives by teaching them what to do in an active threat situation and are an unfortunate, but necessary, reality in today’s world.

On the other side, opponents argue these trainings are not necessary due to the rarity of mass school shootings and that trainings may provide potential shooters with a blueprint to carry out an attack. Notably, opponents most strongly contend that such trainings are traumatizing, creating fear and anxiety among students.

Contributing to this debate is the vast differences in the content and the implementation of active assailant response training with students.

Becoming Certified

After the research team trained and/or became certified in the most popular programs addressing active threats for students Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate (ALICE); Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events (CRASE); Run. Hide. Fight; Student Attacker Response Course (SARC), SRP/SRM – Standard Response Program/ Standard Reunification Method, researchers were able categorize the prevailing active assailant response trainings into three distinct categories.

The first category, single-option response, requires students to respond to an active assailant by turning off the lights, locking the door and hiding in a corner. The second category, dual-option response, combines single- option techniques with evacuating if one is unable to get behind a locked door.

This category includes the PreK-12 student response found in SRP/SRM. Finally, the third category, multi-option response, provides students with three options. The selection of options is based on the students’ proximity to the assailant and include locking and barricading the door with available environmental objects (e.g., chairs, desks), evacuating the building, and actively resisting by throwing items or physically countering the assailant.

ALICE; CRASE; Run. Hide. Fight; and SARC are considered multi-option programs. It is important to note that in dual- and multi-option responses, persons have autonomy to choose which option they feel is best in an active threat situation. As single-, dual-, and multi-option responses provide students with different strategies to respond to an active threat, the impact on students’ psychological well-being is likely to vary substantially between these three categories.

Different Responses

In addition to teaching different content, the implementation of single-, dual-, and multi-option responses differ significantly across schools. For example, some use discussion- based exercises where teachers talk to students about how to respond; whereas, other schools conduct drills where the students actually practice the content they have been taught.

Furthermore, some schools hold functional and full-scale exercises with simulated gunfire and actors recreating an active assailant situation, against the best practices suggestions from the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers, ALICE and Safe and Sound Schools. Just as the implementation of the training varies widely, so, too, can the psychological impact on students.

While schools grapple with what and how to deliver training to students, decisions are often based on emotion and anecdotal evidence. Despite the vast amount of media attention this issue garners, there remains limited research empirically assessing the impact that active assailant protocols have on students’ wellbeing. As a result, we sought to add to the small, but growing, body of research on the psychological impact of these trainings among elementary through high school students.

In late 2019, researchers surveyed 350 children in fourth and fifth grade, and 908 children from sixth through 12th grade in a Midwestern school district. In partnership with school staff, we developed age-appropriate surveys to assess both the negative (scared/fear) and positive (preparedness, confidence) psychological impacts of the district’s active assailant response training as well other routinely practiced emergency drills (fire drills, tornado drills, Stranger Danger discussions). Specifically, this district taught students the multi-option ALICE protocol through discussion-based exercises.

Published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed journal Victims & Offenders, we found nearly nine in 10 students across all grade levels surveyed did not feel more scared/fearful after the ALICE training. In fact, no more than 13% of students reported being more scared/fearful after the training, with students most fearful of the Lockdown option of ALICE and least fearful of the Counter option. These results are similar to the percentages of students feeling more scared/fearful after participating in tornado drills and Stranger Danger discussions.

Furthermore, more than 88% of students reported no change or increased feelings of safety after being trained in ALICE, and more than 86% of Sixth through 12th grade reported no change or an increase in feelings of preparedness and confidence after the ALICE training.

Reaction to Training

Additionally, we sought to determine what factors predicted if a student would have a positive or negative reaction to the training. A consistent finding across all grade levels was that students who were scared of other emergency preparedness responses were more likely to experience a negative psychological outcome after the ALICE training.

This suggests that there may be something unique to those individual students (anxiety, prior trauma) as opposed to the ALICE training. Moreover, for sixth through 12th grades, students who were trained more often in ALICE reported higher levels of confidence. Thus, our findings run counter to common media portrayals of active assailant response protocols traumatizing students.

Instead, we uncovered that for the vast majority of students, multi-option, discussion-based trainings either do not affect or result in greater feelings of safety, preparedness, and confidence without contributing to increased feelings of fear.

Although our research highlights the potential benefits of a discussion- based, multi-option active assailant protocol, schools should take the utmost care to ensure that the small percentage of students who experience distress get the support they need after an active assailant response training and other standard emergency drills.

This study, along with the prior research on the topic, can assist schools in implementing an evidence-based approach to active assailant response training that does not psychologically scar students. While our findings have important implications for school districts generally, the results have become particularly salient as schools are navigating the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion-based exercises utilized in our study can easily be taught to students while maintaining current social distancing guidelines.

This article originally appeared in the January February 2021 issue of Campus Security Today.


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