The Atheist Academic XV: Save Yourself

Originally posted on School of Doubt :)

For me, the most haunting part was the 911 call from Columbine. For five minutes, a terrified adult in charge of students simpered on the phone, alternately screaming at students to hide underneath tables in the library. For five minutes, students held back their instinct and stayed put. And then, you could hear the shooters’ voices. And after that, gunshots.

The main idea of our A.L.I.C.E. training was to think differently about how to react if a shooter comes into our school. Traditionally, we’ve been told to push the kids into a corner, lock the door and hide. After the events of last December at Sandy Hook, school pedagogy now asks us to get the hell out if we can. And if we can’t? Kick the shooter’s ass.

The first part of the training was comprised of a presentation from one of our awesome district resource officers. Basically, the presentation attempted to sell us on the idea of cutting and running, if at all possible, when we’re informed that a shooter is in the building. I don’t think that anyone really needed to be sold on the idea, though. That’s instinct — fight or flight. Except flight is better if you’re a wimp like me. You could tell that this was a serious topic, because even though I was surrounded by many of my work buddies, I didn’t make one joke.

During the second part of the training, the teachers convened upstairs in some of the classrooms. We got to wear these awesome protective masks that were slightly too small for our heads. At least my head. Maybe I have a big head? I looked around to see who was in my room. Some of my English teacher friends, a few woman teachers, and a couple of really Alpha teachers from Social Studies and Physical Education. In the first scenario, we were told to sit in the corner and let the shooter come in and shoot us. I randomly sat behind a guy with wide shoulders, so when the shooter came in, I was completely protected from the foam bullets. This taught me to hide behind the big person in these kind of situations.

In scenario #2, we were given tennis balls and told to fight back — and try to get out of the room. I perched on a desk next to a gym teacher. When the shooter came in, I stood up and threw my tennis ball with superhuman strength. It flew about three feet to the right of the shooter’s head. I felt this urgency well up inside me, and I tried to pummel my way through the throng of teachers in front of me to get to the door. The problem was, they were trying to frantically rush to the door as well, so they were just as invested. As I pushed ineffectively against the crowd, the two Super Alpha teachers grabbed the shooter, twisted his arms in an uncomfortable-looking position, and grabbed his gun from him. The scenario was over. We stopped pushing and shoving. And I learned that I need to include more Super Alpha  teachers in my classroom.

Finally, scenario #3. We were told to hold the door handle with a rope-thing, and pile desks up in front of the door. That way, the shooter couldn’t get in, and if he could, he would have to deal with desks. Super Alpha teacher grabbed a slightly-less Alpha teacher and stood to the left of the door. Super Alpha teacher held not-Super Alpha teacher in a backwards bear hug, and they both held onto the rope that held the door closed. The shooter tried to get in the door, and the teachers pulled back. The shooter never got in the door, so our pristine pile of desks were left intact. (The best part? Super Alpha teacher told not-Super Alpha teacher that he was there so that he could get shot, and SA teacher could still hold his dead body up and block more bullets and keep the door closed… which was GRUESOME but BRILLIANT).

After all of this, we went back to the auditorium and discussed how we felt. We turned to each other, excitedly comparing how our experiences in our rooms had been. In all of them, our instinct had taken over. In all of them, even though we KNEW it wasn’t real, we fought for our lives. Our bodies overrode our instincts, and we did what we had to do. And then, I realized something…

In scenario #1 (which is what we were trained to do before), the teacher and students sit in the corner (or under library tables) and they wait. And sometimes, hiding works for them. But sometimes it doesn’t, and people die.

In scenarios #2 and #3, people don’t sit and wait for help. They get off their asses and they FIGHT BACK. They throw things. They run away. They save themselves and those around them. And that second way? IT WORKS.

This is religion, in a nutshell. In scenario #1 — religion — people sit around and do nothing, and pray abstractedly for someone to save them. And, sometimes, they get saved, and sometimes they die, and it’s all up to chance.

In scenario #2 — atheism — people do something for something for themselves. They don’t wait to be saved. They get out there and SAVE THEMSELVES. The outcome is not up to blind chance. The outcome is up to the people to act on their own.

Schools all over the country are starting to train people through A.L.I.C.E. training. Maybe… just maybe… people will be able to start standing up for themselves. Maybe they’ll see that it works. And perhaps this will lead people to the realization that there is strength in people, and not in God.

At the very least, I’m hopeful that this new training can save lives — since, obviously, God won’t.

We walked out of the auditorium after the training, tired. I laughed and joked with a few teachers, but it was subdued. School shootings are a reality, and they’re awfully sobering. I feel more safe, though, knowing that we have a plan should someone come into the school trying to harm students. I hope it never happens, but I’m not praying to God that it won’t — I have to be prepared, just in case.


Tori Parker

Tori is a high school English teacher from Ohio (insert cheerleader kick here)! She is emphatic! She is skeptical! She is nifty! Her boyfriend says that they can get a potbellied pig someday and name him Bacon. She has a little boy whose pseudonym is SC, although he has recently asked that his name be changed to Henry. When asked for a comment to add on this bio, he asked, "Why do we sound like a bad '70's cop show?" So there's that.

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  1. The article and more importantly, the notion that schools should invest this amount of energy and time dealing with school shootings seems profoundly misguided and damaging. If anything, it’s the totally out-of-proportion fear and energy which seems more in keeping with religion, if you wish to make that sort of a stretch.

    Schools are one of the safest places for children. Shootings, while attention-getting and scary, are actually extremely rare. Yes, even in the States which have shooting rates far higher than other western countries. By re-enacting these scenarios and then by you writing about it here, you are just reinforcing this paranoia. There is real harm that comes from this delusional fear – kids don’t seek help from strangers even when they should; parent volunteers are screened as if they were applying to the CIA which reduces after school programs; and genuine dangers are ignored in favour of these vivid but extremely rare ones.

    While I appreciate that you had a powerful, emotional experience that you wished to share, and there might be some useful lessons, you’re just fanning the flames of an already inflamed level of paranoia. I think that we as skeptics should be making it very clear that school shootings are very rare, and that this sort of exercise is not just wasting time but actually making things worse.

    1. Mass shootings are not just ‘rare’ in Europe, they are practically non existent. There have been no mass shootings in the UK since the Dunblane massacre for the simple reason that we banned private ownership of all guns other than shotguns (which are heavily regulated).

      Society should not pay hundreds of millions of dollars training teachers to react to a situation that is caused by some sick bastards idea of a hobby. The NRA is worse than NAMBLA in my view. They are a bunch of smug shills for the gun industry who don’t care how many deaths they cause.

      1. @Phillip: I have to disagree about how rare school shootings are in Europe. In the last ten years there were 2 major shootings with more than 10 deaths each in Germany and a couple of others with less victims. If the wikipedia list on school shootings is correct shootings with more than 5 deaths happened 7 times in the US in the same period of time. Considering that the population of Germany is about a quarter of the US population this is not very comforting. The number of shootings in the US with one or two victims on the other hand seems to be much higher than in europe. I am not sure if those numbers include “crime related” shootings (e.g. gang disputes) in which a student would target a specific other student as oposed to randomly shooting other people.
        Finland also had two major shootings in 2007/2008.
        Averaging over the whole european union there seem to be far less shootings in europe than the US but it is not non-existent.

        (disclaimer: I am not sure how accurate the wikipedia list for EU shootings is, so there might actually have been more shootings. I am very much hoping the US list is complete as there are so many small shootings listed there)

        While I aggree with the neccessaty of having the drills described in the article I am sort of depressed that teachers need to get “combat training” and learn how to use human shields.

      1. If you consider all of the known universe, schools are definitely one of the safest places for children, since children would die in in the vacuum of space in most places. But even if you restrict the argument to Earth, they would most likely drown in the 70% of the Earth covered in water. Considering the vast expanses of dry land covered in hazardous deserts and polar regions — not to mention all the places inhabited by dangerous wildlife — I think it’s obvious that schools are one of the safest places for children.

        Somehow, I don’t think that’s what tyro meant. :P

        1. Considering the vast expanses of dry land covered in hazardous deserts and polar regions — not to mention all the places inhabited by dangerous wildlife — I think it’s obvious that schools are one of the safest places for children.

          LOL! No, but I think your answer is better than mine! :)

          The CDC has stats for violence & death against youths in school and in general, and also for mass shootings. Even with bullying & school violence (which is serious & not to be downplayed), injuries are far lower in schools than out. It probably helps that cars are not typically found cruising the hallways.

  2. We go through a fire drill here in the United States every month and yet the last school-related fire death was in 1958.
    School shootings have become, if not common, then increasingly possible over the last 15 years.
    I think a training informing teachers about how to react – especially when it’s a change in procedure – is actually pretty important. And I don’t think discussing it is fanning the flames; I suppose you also think that articles on this site that stand up again sexual harassment and rape are also “fanning the flames of an already inflamed level of paranoia” and that they should shut up, put their heads in the sand, and not mention their experiences as well?

    1. Yes, I do think that theses should be put in proper context. If time spent is roughly proportional to the likelihood and the consequence, no more than a few minutes should be spent.

      The CDC says there were 17 homicides in schools during 2009-10, representing 2% of all youth homicides, and this rate has been stable for a decade. Suicide makes up about 10%-20% of deaths in youths (depending on their age group) compared with all violent homicides at 6-10%. Homicides in schools represents only 2% of all homicides, or about .1% of the total. We should be spending 100x as much time focused on preventing suicides, but did you? If you only spent an hour on these dramatizations, you should be spending over two full weeks on each of suicides and drownings. But let’s face it, you didn’t. These little exercises focuses everyone on the extremely rare events at the cost of ignoring the common ones.

      So yes, I do think that the time spent on school shootings hasn’t merely been wasteful but harmful. No, I don’t think you should stop talking about rape or sexual harassment because these happen. A lot. A lot a lot a lot. It’s a silly comparison – rape and sexual harassment affect almost everyone. School shootings affect almost no one. I am not saying that we shouldn’t work to prevent these things, but I am saying that the focus you and your group are paying is hugely distortin, is creating fear and paranoia, is hurting teachers and children, and should be placed in some proper context. Something that has not happened here.

      1. Ah, the venerable appeal to Worse Problems ™. Because we should never take simple steps to improve safety and emergency response so long as there are larger and more intractable problems elsewhere.

        I suppose that, since more kids die in car accidents than from allergic reactions, teachers should also be dedicating their resources to bringing in parents for road safety meetings rather than learning to use EpiPens? This is silly.

        If you’re so concerned about the “wasted” time, how about taking sacrificing an hour of “professional development” to make up for some emergency preparedness? Two birds.

        1. Also,

          (fakeblockquote) “I am not saying that we shouldn’t work to prevent these things” (/fakeblockquote)

          is clearly untrue if you think one hour of training is overkill. How much less could you even do? Send a memo?

        2. Ah, the venerable appeal to a Strawman ™. tyro’s argument is that the time and resources spent preparing for a disaster should be proportional to the risk, not that “we should never take simple steps to improve safety and emergency response so long as there are larger and more intractable problems elsewhere.” tyro thinks that school shootings are rare enough that these resources could be better spent elsewhere.

          If you disagree, attack tyro’s argument. Justify the expenses. Assess the risk and harm. Don’t just invent an easier position to attack.

          1. ” tyro’s argument is that the time and resources spent preparing for a disaster should be proportional to the risk”
            Tyro clearly doesn’t think any resources should be spent, if a one hour training session is too much. (And I specifically address this.) Also that argument is plainly silly. Most disasters are extremely rare yet we prepare for them anyway, because when we get unlucky it mitigates what could otherwise be great harm.

            Tyro specifically cites larger and more intractable problems to contrast. How else am I supposed to interpret his argument?

          2. Tyro clearly doesn’t think any resources should be spent, if a one hour training session is too much.

            I said that the time budgeted should depend on the benefit (number of lives saved or injuries prevented). Wouldn’t you agree?

            In this case, the time is being spent extremely poorly. Virtually no one will be helped, millions of people will be scared needlessly, and that will lead to very bad decisions. And an hour spent on this means an hour not spent on issues that are likely to be of real value. Many have been mentioned: fire, bullying, suicide, allergies, and drowning leap to mind. All of these are order of magnitude larger issues than mass shootings. Do you think that orders of magnitude more time will be spent on them?

            Maybe we need all teachers to spend an hour dealing with children who fall down a well.

          3. We have fire drills (and they are very effective, as others have pointed out). How many people drown at school? It is not sensible to take overall statistics of child death and apply them to school environments.

            I grew up where there are earthquakes. Again, almost no one is affected by earthquakes, and there has not been a major earthquake during school hours where I grew up in at least a hundred years. We still have earthquake drills.

            Time spent also does not need to be directly proportional to risk. It is entirely possible that a more common problem (like fire) can be dealt with in the same amount of time as a less common one (like earthquakes or shootings). Are you advocating spending unnecessarily large amounts of time on bigger problems? It seems to me that the solution is to spend the amount of time necessary to deal with the problem effectively.

        3. Ah, the venerable appeal to Worse Problems ™. Because we should never take simple steps to improve safety and emergency response so long as there are larger and more intractable problems elsewhere.

          That has nothing to do with what I wrote! Take that back.

          I have nothing against people condemning school shootings, writing about them, and trying to prevent them. However this event wasn’t put on by just some activists, it was hosted and paid for by the government. It was also not a pamphlet or small discussion but a big-scale event. As such, it is entirely appropriate to ask what the payoff will be and whether the attention is better placed elsewhere.

          Mass shootings, while tragic, garner vastly more attention and fear than their actual rate can justify. Virtually no one will ever be involved in one, so even perfect training will have little impact. Because of the huge amount of media attention, there’s already a huge amount of paranoia surrounding shootings. Some schools are having armed guards, locking kids in classes, preventing kids from walking home unaccompanied, and requiring police background checks on all parent volunteers which all come with big social & financial costs. Tori’s article, while individually well meaning, just piles onto an issue that’s already blown hugely out of proportion.

          Further, many teachers will confront issues like bullying, suicide, anaphlaxis, and drownings. Time spent dealing with these issues will have a much bigger impact. There is only so much time and money to spend in schools. Saying that schools should not be spending time & money on extremely rare events is NOT the same as penning a Dear Muslima.

          1. There’s some truth in this in that hyper focusing on schools isn’t very logical, but gun violence isn’t an uncommon problem at all in the US. I’d also bet any school hiring armed guards has problems that my mostly white, upper middle class population high school didn’t have, although I wouldn’t say armed guards are typically a useful solution even to those problems. I think we need to recognize that different populations face different levels of risk towards violence.

            You were the person who said that if it were proportional it would be two weeks on suicide, right? But suicide prevention isn’t really about preventing in school suicide as much as it’s about preventing it outside of school and it requires different sorts of actions. I’d definitely say that some schools are spending the equivalent of two weeks, but there’s no equivalent to a day long training teaching how to respond short term when the situation comes up. Frankly the advice would mostly consist of “have them talk to a professional” and “call the police if there is a likelihood of a harm to herself or others”, which generally aren’t helpful ideas if you focus on nothing else, at least not outside of very specific situations.

            Or to put it another way, actual suicide prevention involves more than short term stopping people from killing themselves. Foxconn putting out suicide nets made it harder for workers to kill themselves, but it didn’t address the things that drove them to wanting to do that in the first place.

  3. I’m pretty sure I was talking about deaths, mrmisconception. If we want to compare, then in 2009, over 900 kids brought guns or knives to school, according to FEMA.
    Tyro… “me and my group”? I’m just a teacher who was mandated to go through this training by the federal government. I chose to make light of it and use it as a comparison. I’m so sorry if there aren’t enough school shootings for you to justify this training.

    1. I know, I was just adding some information.

      I see the comparison of fire drills to ALICE training to be along the lines of comparing buckling up in a car compared to buckling up on a plane. The chances of an accident in the plane might be minuscule compared to that of the car, but that doesn’t mean you should be playing Candy Crush during the pre-flight instructions.
      As long as there is room in the budget for the training I see it as well worthwhile.

  4. I go to university and we still get these kinds of instructions. Basically we’re told that if there’s a shooter we should hide and be as passive as possible while we wait for the police. I also live in an urban, noncloistured university so students who are out late at night by themselves inevitably get robbed. The university police send us emails about this where they tell us to stay in groups, “be aware of your surroundings,” etc and also to not resist the person in any way: just let them rob you and give them whatever they want, then go report it to the place. When there’s some kind of rape or sexual assault against a woman they include advice like “don’t get intoxicated.”

    I remember reading something by someone who lived in a high crime area where he talked about how he had never been successfully robbed. His approach to avoiding this was run like hell towards an area with more people, like a bar that’s opened at night, a grocery store, etc. He talked about keeping the area where he would run in mind, trying to run in the middle of the road to attract more attention, etc.

    I wonder where the passivity comes from? Or in schools maybe part of the point is to make you passive, to make you not question authority and be good at following routines and rules. Kind of like a jail you can go home from at night or a “day program” in a mental institution (imagine if there was a mass shooting in a mental institution! in the worst mental institutions you aren’t even allowed to leave your room without permission, much less the ward/floor). The common idea is basically “cure by control,” leading to so many solutions involving passiveness. Not that fighting back is always a good idea and it’s -never- a good idea if you can run, but the school shooting situations and the training examples in your post just make it so clear that sometimes fighting back is a good idea. If 10 people charge someone with a handgun some of them will get killed, but if 10 people or running or even hiding under desks some people are going to get killed too. Unless the person has an assault rifle they eventually aren’t going to be able to keep hurting people.

  5. Aaaaaand this just made me laugh hysterically…

    “It probably helps that cars are not typically found cruising the hallways.” :)

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