Students across the country are taught what to do in case of an active shooter situation: avoid, barricade and hide and, as a last resort, confront the shooter.
But two school shootings in as many weeks where the students who confronted the shooter were killed are prompting officials to question this practice, or wonder, at the very least, should the risk of doing so be discussed.
School districts across the country are training students to throw laptops, books and other objects to distract shooters, and attempt to subdue them by kicking, hitting or tackling.
“They can sit there and become victims, or they can do something and become a hero,” said Greg Crane, founder of the ALICE training method that partly focuses on countering shooters and is taught in about 5,600 school districts. Parents will “be proud of their kids. They saved lives.”
At STEM School Highlands Ranch near Denver, 18-year-old Kendrick Ray Castillo was killed May 7 when he confronted one of two shooters who are accused of killing him and wounding eight others. A week earlier, 21-year-old Riley Howell died in a shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte while trying to defend fellow students.
A University of North Carolina spokeswoman said the school offers ALICE training voluntarily, free of charge, and students are taught as a last resort to use everything at their disposal to fight to stop the shooter.
School officials in Colorado didn’t respond to a request seeking comment about safety training. It couldn’t be learned what safety protocols were used in the school.
“Are we creating a generation of martyrs to believe that this is the appropriate response?” said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services and no relation to the U.S. president.
“You’re asking them to make executive-function decisions that even adults under stress struggle with. We want to acknowledge and respect the hero of this, but we have to exercise caution with kids who process things very differently than we do, in terms of this is the expected standard.”
The National Association of School Psychologists said the students who lost their lives should be honored and remembered, but extensive coverage of their acts could be harmful.
“We caution against unintentionally glamorizing the extremely high risk of confronting an armed assailant head on, particularly when it involves youth,” the group said in a statement.
“Children and adolescents are impressionable and impulsive by nature. They can believe in their own invincibility.”
The association recommends the popular “lockdown” method, which involves locking classroom doors and getting students low and out of sight in an active-shooting situation. The group said confrontation should be a last resort when face-to-face with a shooter.
Training methods such as ALICE, which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate, in no particular order, have been controversial, mostly for encouraging students to counter if needed. Students are trained to counter by distracting the shooter from taking good aim, such as making noise, throwing objects and then getting away if possible, or attacking. Students also are told to follow their teacher’s directions.
Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, said the student in Colorado who lost his life showed great courage and selflessness, but he doesn’t recommend fighting back.
“Too many unknown variables,” he said.
“Even well-trained law enforcement and military personnel sometimes do not respond well in these instances.”
Not far away, some school officials have no plans to change their approach.
“Instead of putting them under a table and waiting for their demise, empower them to have the ability to get out,” said Ronny Potts, police chief in the Keene Independent School District in Texas, who has helped train students on the ALICE method.
“All of our classrooms have bats in them for the biggest person in the room to swing. We’re buying time for me or other officers to get to them.”
Some schools using ALICE have stocked classrooms with buckets of rocks and canned goods, to hit shooters.
Steve Holley, whose 12-year-old son, Nate, hid in a closet as bullets rang at the STEM school in Colorado, said he doesn’t think praising students will spur others to become martyrs. Speaking of Castillo, “it was an unconscious act of bravery,” he said.
Tawnell D. Hobbs is the national K-12 education reporter for The Wall Street Journal.