ALICE Drills Do More Bad Than Good. Here’s Why.


Luke Chinman

Students are trained in homeroom classes on ALICE procedures.

On Friday, November 8, more than 1,600 students, teachers, and faculty participated in an ALICE drill, a program adopted by Pittsburgh Public Schools in March of 2018 following a high-profile shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

At 8:50 AM, principal Dr. McCoy spoke over the intercom: “This is a drill. There is a shooter in the building.” He told the school that a man wearing a black sweatshirt and a black hat was in the main section of the fourth floor. Faculty and students were responsible for deciding whether to shelter in place or evacuate.

Although it’s true that school shootings have received an increased amount of media attention in the past few years, does that mean that these elaborate reenactments of horrific shootings are a necessary precaution, and are they even making a difference?

In 2014, a report by Safe Havens International, a non-profit campus safety organization, found that only 5% of all school-related fatalities between the years 1998 and 2012 were connected to an active shooter incident. This compares to fatalities from school transportation, including student pedestrians on campus and students taking school transportation to campus, which make up 40% of student fatalities.

Gun violence is an epidemic in the United States—more than 30,000 American’s are killed annually—but gun violence in schools receives a disproportionate amount of coverage. We must remember that school shootings are incredibly rare, and drastic action (and funding) should be diverted to more pressing needs.

Regardless, there should still be some initiative put in place to maximize student safety in the rare event of a school shooting. It is foolish to ignore rare instances of danger, as foundational preparation can have largely positive effects on safety. It’s hard to find advocates against fire drills in schools, for example, even though the same Safe Havens International report found no fire-related fatalities in schools from 1998 to 2012.

The difference lies in the manner of the drill. While fire drills are relatively low-stress procedures, active shooter drills incite higher levels of fear because they are much more realistic. These drills can cause trauma to students, especially those who have already experienced traumatic experiences earlier in life. It doesn’t help that Allderdice administration uses a video of news reporting of school shootings spliced together, intercut with TV static, to introduce the ALICE program, evidently attempting to frighten students about the supposed danger they put themselves in when they enter the school building.

Dianna Hecht and Amy Hand, Allderdice counselors, both spoke to the negative effects of general lockdowns on some students at Allderdice. “When we’ve had lockdowns, I think I’ve had maybe one or two students who have come to me and said I’m feeling really anxious. [So] we call home and they are able to leave,” said Hand.

During ALICE drills, however, Hecht and Hand said they hadn’t seen the same types of student response. This contradicts conversation among students. “I feel like there’s already a sense of this kind of fear of guns in our culture… I feel like it’s a reminder of how worried you should be,” said a student who asked his parents to stay at home during the ALICE drill. “The drill isn’t taken seriously… [Students] are making jokes about jumping out the window. They’re making jokes about getting shot… I just didn’t want to worry about it.” The disconnect between students and faculty reveals a poor implementation of the ALICE program; students have been given very few opportunities to voice their opinions despite being the largest participant group in ALICE drills.

And this trauma isn’t even a necessary evil. The ALICE Training Institute provides no research showing that these methods of preparation actually result in lower casualty rates during school shootings. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who studies mass shootings, told NPR that, not only is there a lack of evidence that these don’t prepare students for mass shootings any more than verbal or written instructions, but they can cause confusion in real shooter situations because students and teachers may mistake a dangerous situation for merely another drill. Although a similar confusion may occur during a fire, in a school shooter incident, procedures such as evacuation and blockading of doors are carried out differently than a drill scenario, whereas fire drill procedures are almost identical to a real-life situation.

The ALICE Training Institute is profiting off of fear of a tragedy similar to the one in Parkland, Florida, selling their unproven service at a steep price. PublicSource reported in August that the district paid $16,500 for a two-day training and certification for 50 district staff, just one of many ALICE trainings in the last two years. 

Ultimately, the district must decide if it is worth putting student mental health at risk to prepare for extremely rare situations with an under-researched program that uses money from an already-tight budget. Students are the ones required to participate in these drills, and it now falls on the students to call on authority figures to make important changes to a flawed system.