A.L.I.C.E. in Shooterland

It is rare for meetings in academia to be labelled as “mandatory.” But the memo summoning all the faculty and staff to participate in “ALICE (active shooter) training” made it clear that we were required to attend. I was told by a representative of my faculty union that I could be disciplined by the college if I skipped it.

I must admit that my initial objection to being summoned to this meeting did not arise from some deeply thought-out ethical position. It was, frankly, just a typical professor’s reluctance to waste time in yet another empty exercise whose main function was to allow some administrator to check a box indicating the accomplishment of some mandate from a higher administrator.

So, under duress, I filed into a classroom with several dozen of my colleagues and sat in one of the desks I usually face and waited for the campus police chief to arrive. Escorted by two uniformed deputies he arrived wearing college casual–slacks and an oxford shirt–and would have been easily mistaken for a tall white early career professor except for his crewcut and the badge and gun he had strapped to his waist.

I will readily admit that I was exactly the sort of student I find most challenging, the one who from the first moment clearly resents being in the class. I fiddled with my phone.  I slunk down in my chair.  I did not make eye contact with teacher.

The chief began by introducing himself and A.L.I.C.E., an acronym that stands for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.”  I immediately wondered why “Alert” and “Inform” were both included as they seemed rather repetitive, and why “Evacuate” was given the lowest billing. Chief said that A.L.I.C.E. should not be thought of as a sequence, but as fluid menu of options.

He explained that shootings happen very quickly, often before police can respond and that therefore everyone needs to think about how their own actions could boost their chances of survival.  The Chief then played a heart-pounding montage of mass shootings from Columbine High School to sometime last year, which makes it out of date as it apparently was released before Las Vegas and Parkland. How odd that we can mark time this way.

When the video was done the Chief began by saying, “who knows what a mass shooter looks like?”  One of my colleagues nailed the answer, “well, they are white, male, and usually under 30.”  This appeared to be the answer the Chief expected and he flashed a slide correcting our liberal fake news assumptions that read “Active Shooter Event Facts: No definite profile…gender, age, race, etc.” Taking great pleasure in schooling a room full of longhairs, he stated authoritatively, “I’ve just reviewed the statistics on this and it would surprise you to know that only about fifty percent of shooters match that profile.” I quickly wondered why he didn’t realize that even if that low-ball stat was true, that because white men are less than a third of the population, this constitutes a notable over-representation.

The next slide was a table in which each cell represented a room visited by the Virginia Tech killer. Underneath the room number was either the word “passive” or “active” along with the number of students and staff present in that room and the number gunned down.  In the rooms marked “passive” the ratio was high and in the others it was low. The Chief explained that in the two rooms that contained most of the victims, students just huddled together while “the shooter” shot each person in turn. However in the rooms where most “targets” survived, doors were blocked with chairs, students created chaos by moving around or throwing things or screaming, or in one case, a teacher led his students to jump out of two-story window. “You know,” said the Chief, “your chances of surviving a drop from two-stories is pretty good.”

We were then told how we can improvise to barricade classroom doors with chairs and desks or, lacking those, to tie purses around door handles and closing mechanisms. If all else fails, holding the door with one’s feet while laying on your back was suggested (and again, it was pointed out that some people at Virginia Tech “saved themselves” this way).

Chief then pulled a rather realistic-looking handgun, which was presumably fake because of its blaze orange color, and said reassuringly, “don’t panic, this is just a toy,” and proceeded to demonstrate the difference between sitting passively and being an “easy target” and actively “countering” the “shooter.”  Walking around the room the Chief pointed the gun at each person in turn. “Bang,” “Bang,” “Bang,” he said rhythmically as he pretended to slaughter us.

His point being made about not freezing in place, the Chief then recruited a volunteer from the front row.  He asked her to point the gun at him and asked if she thought she could shoot him from a few feet away. She seemed pretty confident that she could, noting that she’s handled weapons before, and he took a few steps back and asked again.  She said it would be harder but she could.  He then moved around the room and asked the question a third time.  This time she had to admit that a moving target was harder to hit. He then produced some rubber balls that he began throwing at her to the general amusement of all in the room and asked if that might complicate her aim.

The Chief continued, “See how my aim was thrown off? It doesn’t take much to make an inexperienced and untrained marksman miss his shot.” Perhaps this was true of the handgun with a normal clip that the Chief wielded, but seemed entirely beside the point if he was carrying a military assault rifle or any gun that could spray a cloud of bullets. One of the balls rolled past and I noticed it was emblazoned with the trademarked logo “A.L.I.C.E.”  No one asked the obvious question of whether we should carry our own rubber balls or if the university will provide a bucket of them in each room.

Though the Chief emphasized over and again that he was not blaming the victims, our take-home lesson was nevertheless clearly implied. Those who die in mass shootings have only themselves to blame for not being clever or quick enough to take action. Luckily, with a little practice and forethought, we can be prepared to meet the threat and survive, God forbid, we ever have to.

Who is A.L.I.C.E. and where did she came from? A.L.I.C.E., it turns out, is not a law enforcement nonprofit or police mascot like old McGruff the Crime Dog, but a for-profit corporation chartered soon after the Sandy Hook horror. The A.L.I.C.E. Institute, L.L.C. offers seminars in surviving mass shooting events that lead to its own certification as an “A.L.I.C.E. Instructor” for $595. Organizations can pay to have the A.L.I.C.E. Institute consult on their safety for fees that aren’t disclosed on their website. For $24.99 any individual can take their online course.  A.L.I.C.E. also offers a wide array of merch, including hats, t-shirts, A.L.I.C.E. bookmarks, and of course those A.L.I.C.E.-branded rubber balls (10 for $10). A.L.I.C.E. also publishes curricula for schools and various manuals and guides, including I’m Not Scared, I’m Prepared Because I Know ALICE, a picture book and companion activity organizer geared to “elementary aged children.” (A set of 50 runs $995)

The A.L.I.C.E. Institute claims to have conducted trainings in thousands of police departments, schools, hospitals, and other private and public organizations.  This may be an undercount of its actual reach as its current calendar of training events for the rest of 2018 includes 206 events in 47 states.

Such training emphasizing the importance of taking direct action to confront an armed maniac became official government policy sometime between Columbine and Sandy Hook.  Just after Sandy Hook the Department of Education released a report urging all schools to include countering strategies in their preparation plans, or as the government guidelines suggested, to “incapacitate the shooter to survive and protect others from harm.”[1]  Training for an “active shooter situation,” the federal guidelines claimed, “provides the means to regain your composure, recall at least some of what you have learned, and commit to action.”

The snowballing popularity of A.L.I.C.E. training cannot be accounted for by the canny marketing of the entrepreneurs of tragedy. Clearly, schools and other public institutions are under pressure to appear to be addressing a threat that cannot actually be addressed outside of coordinated federal action to restrict access to guns, especially military-style ones so often the choice of mass killers.

Part of the appeal of A.L.I.C.E. to government officials and legislators is that it effectively privatizes a social and political issue. By spreading the myth that anyone can take steps to increase their odds of surviving such an event, the burden of responsibility for protection shifts from the state to the individual. The more the victims of these tragedies can be viewed as complicit in their own wounding and death, the less pressure will legislatures feel to pass new gun laws or bureaucrats to enforce them. At the end of this tilted slope are the gun nuts shouting to ban “gun free zones” and arm teachers.

Many critics have pointed out that A.L.I.C.E. training, like the ‘Duck and Cover’ drills of the 1950s and 1960s, serve to normalize and numb the population to events that should never be considered routine. Being told as a children to dive under our desks the second we saw the nuclear flash taught us to consider the madness of a nuclear arms race as a natural part of life.

But beyond defining mass shooting as a new normal, the spread of these programs is surely a cultural reaction to the growing realization that there is no possibility of change; that the system is so undemocratic and corrupted that even the most overwhelmingly popular proposals, such as banning assault weapons or limiting the capacity of magazines, have zero chance of becoming federal law. This realization threatens the legitimacy of a political and social order that partly rests on a mental tendency psychologists call “system justification bias,” a widespread psychic bias in favor of seeing one’s society as principled and fair. (Self-deception is less mentally corrosive than understanding that one lives in a chaotic and unfair world.) Killers strolling down school hallways and randomly murdering children are hard to square with an understandable, rational, and just world. A political system that refuses to take any steps to interrupt this cycle of mass gun violence only compounds this horror.

So instead of accepting the reality of our social and political pathologies, many people’s natural cognitive tendency is to find ways to restore the illusion of order and control. Teaching students and staff that they can “take control of the situation” and “counter the threat” from “active shooters” need not actually be useful in a crisis to be immensely satisfying mentally by reassuring ourselves that we aren’t living in a chaotic society governed by a dysfunctional state.

Our A.L.I.C.E. was nearly up when Chief began to show a news clip, from Fox News of course, featuring an A.L.I.C.E. expert. That seemed like a good opportunity to catch up with the baseball scores on my phone. The first article on my feed was the breaking news that someone was shooting people at YouTube headquarters in California. I wondered if those unfortunate souls were prepared with A.L.I.C.E-branded rubber balls.


[1]U.S. Department of Education, Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operation Plans (June 2013) p. 63.