ALICE Training: Are Our Priorities Right?

Exceptional Ann Arbor Public Schools | ALICE TrainingThis morning, as a parent of children attending Ann Arbor public schools, I received an email concerning “ALICE training” from the superintendent, Jeanice Kerr Swift, Ph.D. But it makes me wonder, are we really focusing efforts and resources most effectively?

Today’s email message begins:

Today and tomorrow, we will be sharing the ALICE safety concepts with our students…

In the Ann Arbor Public Schools, student safety is our top priority. Tragically, over the past several years this country has seen a dramatic increase in school violence and school shootings. As the experts analyze these horrific events, it is apparent that school districts and local law enforcement need to work closely together to develop, train and practice current response protocols. These protocols are crucial to survival if an active shooter should ever enter our schools.

According to AAPS, ALICE is an acronym that stands for:

Alert–Get the word out! “Armed intruder in building” instead of “Code Red”. Use clear, concise language to convey the type and location of the event.

Lockdown–Lock the doors. Continue to lockdown students in a secure area.

Inform–Keep staff and students informed of the location of the intruder. Communication keeps the shooter off balance and allows for good decision-making by staff.

Counter–Apply skills learned in training to distract, confuse, and gain control of the intruder situation.

Evacuate–Reduce the number of potential targets for the shooter, and minimize chances of victims resulting from friendly fire when help arrives.

Heightened Stress Levels

It is likely that ALICE training does increase the overall chances of survival during a school shooting event. But it is also likely to raise the stress and anxiety level of students. The district’s own Points to Remember for Classroom Teacher document reminds teachers:

Ask students how they feel after the discussion. They will be scared, empowered, and possibly unsure about how they would respond. All of these feelings plus many more are normal. Tell them this.

So, it is reasonable to ask questions, such as:

  • How does ALICE training affect the overall stress and anxiety levels of students? How does this impact learning? Self-confidence? etc.
  • How would the chances of survival be affected by training only faculty and staff and not the students?

Weighing the Odds

[A]n airplane flight may be 300 times more likely to experience an accident or incident, compared to the same time spent in a classroom session in an educational institution in the United States.

Every important decision is really an exercise in weighing risks vs. rewards. It is a cost benefit analysis.  And this is true when assessing the merits of ALICE training.

The first, and obvious question we should ask is: What are the actual risks of events that ALICE training is designed to mitigate? For starters, we can look at the odds of a shooting at any particular school during any given year. Based on analysis by psychologist Dr. Max Wachtel, who conducts forensic evaluations for criminal and civil cases, the chances are low:

The chances of any particular K-12 school in the United States experiencing a shooting incident in any given year is approximately 1 in 53,925.

The chances of a school shooting taking place in a US high school in any given year: 1 in 21,000.

The chances of a school shooting taking place in a US elementary or middle school in any given year: 1 in 141,463.

By comparison, the chances of dying in a car accident in any given year is considerably higher: 1 in 10,192. In other words, dying in a car accident is roughly twice as likely as a shooting incident in a high school and fourteen times as likely as a shooting incident in an elementary or middle school.

But that does not really tell the whole story. The chances of a school shooting occurring is not the same as being killed in a school shooting. What we really want to know is this: what are the chances of being killed or injured in a school shooting?

Teasing out an answer to that question is more complicated. I won’t go through the details here, but you can find a detailed analysis published by Decoded Science that concludes:

[A]n airplane flight may be 300 times more likely to experience an accident or incident, compared to the same time spent in a classroom session in an educational institution in the United States.


School shooting are high-profile events that, understandably, lead to strong public outcry for action. But is ALICE training the most productive action available?

Studies have shown that being in a U.S. K-12 classroom is not dangerous. In fact, as reported by NPR, school is the safest place a kid can be:

Research by Cornell and others shows that school-age and college-age kids are not only safer but far more secure on school campuses than anywhere else.

ALICE training is designed to reduce the already-extremely-low risk of death or injury during a school shooting, once a school shooting is in progress. But training for it comes at the cost of increasing the stress and anxiety levels of students, especially younger students. Such statewide training mandates also cost in terms of actual dollars as well as distraction from educational time. And more importantly, this training does nothing to prevent a school shooting event from materializing in the first place.

The old wisdom about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure comes to mind. Given that the risk of school shootings are already far less than the risk of air travel, should ALICE training for students be a top priority? Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on the prevention side of the equation? Such efforts might stop a school shooting before it even started, and do so without raising the stress and anxiety levels of every student.

And what about even lower-hanging fruit? Ann Arbor Huron High School, for example, is located at the intersection of two heavily trafficked, multi-lane roads, neither of which have adequate crosswalks. And due to budget cuts, there is almost no bussing, creating an increase in both pedestrian traffic as well as drop-off and pick-up vehicle traffic. Every morning (in the dark for much of the school year), and every afternoon, students cross these streets on foot, scrambling through breaks in the traffic. I strongly suspect that a small investment in crosswalk signals would increase student safety far more than ALICE training.

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