By Chad Frey
Sarah Livesay's face was somber as she looked around a room full of parents of students at Cooper Early Education Center mixed with school officials. She was about to start a very difficult discussion.
The idea of an intruder with a weapon in a school — especially a preschool — is sobering.
“I see your faces. It is terrifying to think about,” Livesay said as she looked around the room. “... It is going to be the worst day for everyone who is involved. The worst day of your life has now taken place with children, in the place you work and a place you should feel safe.”
Cooper Early Education Center houses a daycare along with preschool programs for four-year-olds. Hundreds of children are there every day.
The school is going through ALICE training. ALICE stands for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.” That training will include drills for a violent event within the school — an active shooter or active killer event. The thought of an active shooter in a preschool is sobering one.
Cooper is not alone in training for the worst. Elementary school principals in USD 373 will be meeting to discuss plans for such an event. One of those principals, Jason Chalastari, is a certified ALICE trainer. He is principal of the Walton Rural Life Center.
As part of the training, students will be trained as well. It means frank discussions with parents of the school's district's youngest students, and the students themselves. It also means drills to practice the response.
“This makes my heart break, every time we have to go through this,” said Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs, president of the Newton USD 373 board of education. “The though out there is if you have had no thoughts about this, and had no practice, your body does not know how to react. If you have at least thought about it and practiced, your body at least has some response. Seconds literally make a huge difference.”
Before the drills occur, there will be meetings with parents to talk about the training — and it is possible school staff will have suggestions for how parents can talk to their children along with titles of books for children parents can read with their child.
“The younger the child we are dealing with, the more difficult this is to deal with,” Livesay said. “I hate that we live in a world where it can happen. But we don't do parents or children any justice if we don't talk to them about it and we don't practice it.”
Cooper sits across the street from the Newton Police Department — which could help with response time if such an event would occur.
But, Livesay said, the school still needs a response plan.
As she was trained in ALICE, she learned the conventional wisdom has changed a bit. In the past, schools have employed a “shelter in place” technique when an intruder with a weapon enters a school. That, however, is no longer thought the be the best plan.
A group of students huddled together in a classroom, creates the possibility of more casualties.
“All of those people, students and staff, are sitting ducks,” Livesay said. “School shootings had high hit rates, almost double what law enforcement has. … All of your targets are right there together. You are bound to hit someone, probably multiple people.”
In the event of an intruder, staff and students will be alerted immediately — that warning could include a brief description of who it is coming and where they are.
Once that alert is sounded, teachers will have decisions to make — based on what entrance to the building is being used by the intruder.
“People who are in different places of a building need to know what their options are,” Livesay said.
Those options could include a lockdown and barricade — leading children into a bathroom, barricading the front door of the classroom and hiding. Countering is also considered an option.
“Countering is the most difficult to explain,” Livesay said. “Countering is not about fighting. It is about protecting yourself. It means throwing objects at the person who has invaded the building and helping kids understand that if we can distract the person, throw them off balance … that we increase our chance of getting out of that event alive.”
Evacuation is an option.
That option is one that terrifies Livesay and her staff — telling 4-year-olds to scatter and run, quite possibly without the aid of an adult at their side.
“We tell kids to run until you 'can't see any bad' or 'hear any bad' — until you can't see the school or hear any gunshots. Where they are going to run to will depend on where they are getting out of the building. An adult may or may not be running with them. It is particularly terrifying to send kids that we would not let go out the front door by themselves and certainly not to cross the street alone to tell them to run. There is nowhere they can run where they don't have to, fairly immediately, cross a street.”
It would take hours to find all of those children. But the reality is, they are safer on the run than staring at the intruder.
“It is harder to hit ants,” said Annessa Russell, president of the school policy council.
And that idea is why the district is training staff and students.
“There will still likely be people injured and killed in the event of a shooting in a school, even if everyone does their best to follow ALICE,” Livesay said. “However, we are trying to limit the body count. Doing something, is better than doing nothing.”