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ALICE and LASER: Schools and law enforcement prepare, sometimes intensely, for violence

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An instructor gives directions to volunteer Colton Richter on Friday during an active shooter response training at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 3
A Law Enforcement Active Shooter Emergency Response (LASER) trainee works his way down a hall at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on Friday. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)3 / 3

CASS LAKE—In a darkened classroom at Cass Lake-Bena High School on Tuesday, staff hunkered behind desks and bookshelves as a man pounded angrily at the door.

He burst in, shouting.

"Everybody stand up!" the man—Cass Lake Sheriff's Deputy Eric Alger—roared as his plastic Nerf rifle whirred to life. No one budged. "Stand up or I'll shoot you! You're dead! Every one of you are dead!"

Alger paced through the room, methodically shooting staffers with foam pellets as screams and chaos piped in through the high school's PA system. Only a handful escaped his notice before Alger ended the simulation and someone switched the lights back on.

"So, how did that feel?" Alger, now relaxed, asked as the room's vibe shifted to nervous laughter. He set the bright orange rifle to one side.

"Scary," said one staffer; "horrible," said another. Alger was in the room for about a minute, he said, but several mock victims said it felt much longer.

"It sucks. It really does," Alger said. "But that's why we're doing this training, because we have to make the change. We cannot continue to sit and wait and die."

That dry run was an example of what more and more schools don't want staff and students to do if a shooter rampages through their building. It was part of a day-long "ALICE" training seminar at the high school for paraprofessionals and other non-licensed Cass Lake-Bena staff, plus new teachers there who didn't go through a similar course for licensed staff last year.

ALICE is an acronym—"Alert. Lockdown. Inform. Counter. Evacuate."—that represents a relatively new way to think about and react to school shootings.

Rather than lock the door, switch off the lights, and hide, trainees are taught to consider barricading the door with desks or using a belt to impair the mechanical arm near the top of the door. They're also encouraged to consider opening—or smashing—a window to escape the building entirely, or even using everyday classroom objects to distract or disable the shooter.

Cass Lake-Bena staff plan to meet with parents this September to talk about school safety in general and ALICE training in particular. They're also planning five state-mandated lockdown drills.

But CL-B is far from the only school district to adopt ALICE-style thinking.

A Law Enforcement Active Shooter Emergency Response (LASER) trainee fires off rounds on Friday at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School.

Staff at Red Lake School District, where a former student wounded five people and killed seven others plus himself in 2005, were some of the first in the region to learn ALICE's methods.

Security workers and high-level administrators there have all undergone intense ALICE training like Tuesday's at Cass Lake-Bena. A few teachers there have undergone the same, Security Coordinator Donald Brun said. Most rank-and-file staff have watched an instructional video that outlines ALICE methodology, he said.

Students there haven't been taught ALICE methods directly, Brun said, but staff have conducted drills where a person with an "intruder" sign walks through the halls during classtime to prompt students and staff to react accordingly.

Bemidji Area Schools followed suit last year. Last year, a pair of Bemidji High School administrators became ALICE trainers themselves and, like in Red Lake, the philosophy has since filtered down to teachers, staff, and students there. Administrators and teachers got the Nerf gun treatment, Principal Brian Stefanich said, and all staff and students have been shown an instructional powerpoint.

Every room at the high school has a "safety bucket" that contains a tarp to help students climb through a broken window, toilet paper, a first aid kit, duct tape, a bungee cord for barricading doors, garbage bags, and anything else a teacher might want to add, like bottles of water or a flashlight.

During homeroom, staff and students have walked and talked through their options if, say, a shooter were in a certain wing of the high school, or consider other items to add to the room's bucket.

School staff plan to conduct more expansive safety drills this school year, Stefanich said.

"What we need to do next is: OK, what actually are they gonna do if we have an intruder during lunch? And that's a beast for all of us. Our lunch room is wide open," Stefanich said. "We need to get into those situations, now, where we're actually moving kids or actually doing the drills with the students, not just walk through, talk through, this is what our options are."

'LASER' sharpens skills

And on Friday at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Bena, more than 20 Leech Lake Tribal Police officers wrapped up a "LASER"—"Law Enforcement Active Shooter Emergency Response"—training session with experts paid for by the Department of Homeland Security via Louisiana State University's National Center for Biomedical Research and Training. The three-day course is designed to teach patrol officers how to rapidly neutralize an active shooter and render aid thereafter.

In one hallway, a man in a heavy coat and goggles fired paintball-like rounds at officers as they rounded a corner near the school's entrance. Next to him, an instructor fired blanks. (The course aims to recreate some of the sights and sounds of a shooting in progress.)

The man retreated into a classroom as the officers returned fire. They stalked up the hallway, past a room with a bloodied mannequin, and—after a quick "Ready?"; "Ready." at the door—swept into the man's hiding place. The pip-pip-pip-pip of their training pistols sounded from inside the room, and the simulation ended shortly thereafter.

"Way to get in there, get in the fight," a second instructor said. The man went back to his position in the hallway and another group of cops readied themselves in the school's entryway.

Tribal police said the LASER course sharpens skills they already have. Not quite half of the tribal police department's officers have undergone similar training already, said Sergeant Travis Hemp.

"Our response is 100 percent critical on what the outcome of the case is," he said.

Cass County Sheriff deputies take part in Alert Lockdown Inform Counter and Evacuate (ALICE) training.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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