The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 22, 2013

Conneaut school officials unveil defense plan

Staff Writer

CONNEAUT — School officials in Conneaut unveiled their defense plan to parents and the public in case of an armed intruder Thursday night in the first of four meetings scheduled at each of the districts buildings.

The ALICE concept is in play in Conneaut and other nearby districts. ALICE stands for Alert/Lock-down/Inform/Counter/Evacuate, and is meant to give students and staff options when a deadly threat arises. Conneaut's ALICE plan also deeply involves police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

After more than a year of study and preparation, administrators are rolling out details of the plan to parents. Thursday’s kickoff meeting was held at Conneaut Middle School, home to more than 400 students.

Eight people attended.

ALICE trainers on hand to talk about the program outnumbered the audience. School officials were discouraged, given the advance publicity, but were willing to chalk up the meager turn-out to poor weather and fears about a possible winter storm.

“We’re a little disappointed,” said Kent Houston, Conneaut Area City Schools superintendent.

The balance of the meetings will be held next week, all starting at 6 p.m. People can attend any of the sessions because the message will be essentially the same at each. Here’s the remaining schedule: Gateway Elementary (Monday),  Lakeshore Primary (Tuesday) and Conneaut High School (Wednesday). The meetings will include a video that could be upsetting to some, officials said.

ALICE is an entirely different way of dealing with a shooter. Lessons learned over the years from past tragedies, such as those at Columbine High School and Virgina Tech, caused experts to re-think their opinions.

In the past, students and teachers routinely went to their rooms, closed their doors, masked their windows and huddled under desks, officials said. Today, it’s believed a pro-active response is encouraged: Run if you want or stay put if you feel that's the best option, said Joel Taylor, CHS assistant principal and ALICE team leader.

In the Conneaut district, technology has been tweaked to allow police to view images from school surveillance cameras to help them quickly pinpoint the location of the shooter. Control rooms have been established in each building that contain phones, public address system and computers. The district has ordered special locks, at $80 each, that will deny an intruder entry to a room. P.A. systems will be used to alert staff to the whereabouts of the gunman.

Training for students will begin next month and drills will follow, Taylor said. Students will eventually be taught to escape if possible, and once outside the building move far away — but then eventually head to a designated rally point where they will be reunited with a parent or guardian. In the case of CMS, the rally point is the Interstate 90 rest area, a short distance away and accessible through a maintenance gate off Dorman Road.

Parents who flock to the school will be barred and will only add to the chaos, officials said. “We don't want parents at the scene,” Taylor said.

Training will be “kid-friendly” for smaller students, who — in a real emergency — will be escorted out of their building by staff.

Despite all the attention they receive, school shootings are rare, Taylor said. There is only a 1-in-53,000 chance an incident will occur at a high school, and a 1-in-7.8 million chance a student will be shot, he said. However, there is a 85 percent chance such an incident will occur somewhere in the United States.

One big misconception about ALICE is that it teaches students to battle their attacker, Taylor said. Confrontation is the absolute last-resort re-sponse, he said. Students will learn to create barricades at doors, spread out in a room instead of huddle together in a corner and move around to cause a distraction.

Despite all the planning and precautions, it will be very hard to discourage a gunman determined to gain entry, Taylor said.

“There’s no way to plan for everything,” he said. “We can only put out a plan and act upon it the best we can. The plan is to minimize the amount of damage (the shooter) can cause.”

People in the audience seemed pleased with the ALICE program. One man said he was “100 percent on board” with the concept.

Jennifer Clemens, mother of a CMS student, said she was impressed with the program and felt more reassured. Jason Rought, who accompanied Clemens to the program, agreed.

“It’s about time,” he said.