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How To Train A Lamb For The Slaughter

HUNTINGTON BEACH CA - FEBRUARY 4 : A SWAT team member enacts defense against school violence . SWAT teams from many Police forces throughout America and Canada participate in a realistic training exercises at various High Schools throughout America to help combat the rise in shooting and violence on Campus. April 19, 2001 Huntington Beach High School, Huntington Beach California (Photo By Paul Harris/Getty Images)
Paul Harris/Getty Images|

A training exercise in Huntington Beach, Calif.

My grandfather was a mean old bastard from West Virginia with one full finger on one of his hands, and he would show me the nubs. “You wanna end up like that, do you?” he’d say, and then he’d cackle his booming coal miner’s laugh before, inevitably, someone would tell the story. Grandpa hadn’t lost his fingers in the mines, but in a lawnmower when my uncle had slid down a hill toward where my grandfather was cutting the grass; my uncle’s shoes were getting chopped up and my grandfather shoved in his hand before his son could lose a toe. Every time he would point that crooked hand at me, it helped me define what I believed to be the responsibility of fatherhood. And he pointed it often.

I could say I think of my grandfather’s hand every time I put my daughter on the bus to go to school, but that would be a lie for dramatic effect. But I do think other bad thoughts when I put my daughter on the bus. I don’t know how to stop thinking them. I only started thinking them more when she came home with permission slips regarding an upcoming ALICE drill, where my 7-year-old daughter would have the opportunity to learn how to barricade her classroom door in the event of a shooting spree at her elementary school. I was given a choice to opt her out of the drill, if I felt that it would traumatize her. What a relief.

I wish that I didn’t have to think about death in the context of my daughter being shot when she goes to school, or my other two children who will eventually go to school. I wish that I didn’t wonder how many other schools will have had massacres by then; how many new ways we will have found to rationalize living in a society that creates profitable business models out of both selling guns and teaching children how to avoid getting shot in the face in math class. I don’t really want to be part of this place anymore, to the extent I’ve ever felt part of it. I don’t think I’m alone in that. 

But now I’m stuck because of these perfect children, surrounded by adults that have become both purveyors and preventers of death. So I had to take the task seriously and look into the pragmatism of ALICE training for my child. Much as I would prefer it not be true, my daughter exists in a country where killing people is normal—arguably encouraged in some circumstances—and guns are readily accessible. Her foot is already in the lawnmower.

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. It is of course copyrighted and for-profit, one brand of many in the wide field of active-shooter training methods. These have flourished in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, when it was decided that “shelter in place” drills, that legacy of nuclear fears, were insufficient in the face of a gun. ALICE is not all bad; in a piece of writing that is quite clearly going to interrogate the fundamental value of active-shooter training, it feels important for me to state that up front. Presumably grown-ups shoulder most of the hard decisions when a shooter starts killing children in the school where they work, and qualitative research conducted over the past 10 years has revealed a pretty consistent theme: After active-shooter training, teachers and administrators feel as though they are more prepared (and parents feel that the school is more prepared) for one of those mass-murder situations we accept as an unavoidable part of American life.

That’s important, because confidence is key in training of any kind, from practicing a sport or honing a craft to reacting properly in higher-stress situations, like merging into a busy interstate before a tractor trailer flattens your shitty little Kia. The scenarios can shift, but the goal is muscle-memory and mental calm such that when faced with a sudden need to act, you can, without having to stop and do game theory in your head. My daughter goes to school in Pittsburgh, so one of the examples used to assure parents of ALICE training’s effectiveness is the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that happened a few steps from where I used to smoke weed in college. Testimonials from the brave men and women who did their best to protect others inside the synagogue say they believe ALICE training gave them the confidence needed to navigate the most harrowing experience imaginable.

As a parent, that type of belief is important to me, because lord knows I’m stuck at home with absolutely no confidence in anyone’s ability to keep my child safe. I like to think that the people responsible for it at least believe they are prepared to take it on, even if all of us have a little bit of a winking understanding that all this training is a little silly once the legal-to-own-and-shoot gun barrel is pointed at your chest.

Belief is fine, but we are a nation of science, according to the folks who decide that kind of stuff. And the science is pretty torn on whether active-shooter training does anything besides assure people that they are less likely to die or to make mistakes in service of preventing others from dying. The MIT Press Reader wrote a thorough but digestible round-up of the existing research in the summer of 2022 and the conclusions are fairly jarring. It doesn’t appear that ALICE training offers much aside from the placebo effect, and even then may have the opposite effect of its intent. 

One study that showed ALICE training reduced the number of people shot (in simulation), but a separate study found those who received ALICE training often made more mistakes in simulated scenarios than those who hadn’t: mistakes like fleeing when they should’ve barricaded, or rushing a shooter when they should’ve fled. The first simulation study itself had a potential bias: There were “two authors [that] are certified ALICE instructors and one employed as a National Trainer for the ALICE Training Institute.” I understand that there’s no such thing as “clean” research given that it all costs money and often is funded by sources with skin in the game, but I would be as skeptical of those results as I would be of a study funded by Pepsi that showed soda increases sexual stamina. 

I want to believe that training teachers increases my daughter’s chances of surviving the day, but definitive research supporting that belief simply doesn’t exist. I don’t know how to square this circle of belief and outcome. I don’t work at a school and am not putting myself at risk of diving in front of a gun for a stranger’s kid—something that I don’t think most teachers consider when getting into the profession, and which they shouldn't have to. But what’s the alternative? It would be nice to think the solution is more cops, but Uvalde, and countless cowardly acts by police officers the nation over, nullify that argument. Giving a person a gun doesn’t automatically make them a protector. 

What effect does active-shooter training have on the children themselves? The Journal of Adolescent Health found in 2020 that 60.2 percent of students ages 14-24 said that active-shooter drills make them feel “scared and hopeless.” On another question worded slightly differently, a slight majority (50.9 percent) said drills made them feel “unsafe or scared,” against just 20.3 percent who said the drills made them feel more prepared for a shooting. Overall, a plurality of respondents believe the drills do not make them safer, with a quarter of those believing the drills made them more vulnerable to potential threats from inside the school (their classmates, who are all now potential suspects) who would know the protocols, thereby making them “sitting ducks.” “Active shooter drills cause emotional distress,” the study’s authors wrote, “and youth perceive drills to have questionable benefit.”

So then, who and what is active-shooter training for? Based on respondent answers, it boosts the confidence of parents, teachers, and administrators that they would respond favorably to a shooting spree. It doesn’t necessarily appear to help them do so, though—and may even lead them astray. (The first staffer to spot the shooter at Stoneman Douglas High School cited his active-shooter training for the choice not to initiate an emergency code, because he’d “been trained not to set off a massive law enforcement response unless he actually saw a gun or shots fired.” The second staffer to see the shooter hid in a closet.) 

It is also introducing a level of distrust and embedded nihilism in our children that will have reverberating effects for generations. They are being told that they are, and should be, terrified lambs led to the slaughter. If they’re not being traumatized, I sure as hell am. So I’m left wondering how important it is for our culture to consider the balance between preparedness for a hellish present and the long-term impacts on our future. I can’t do much about that, though. I can only tend to the kids I’ve got.

Having children changes your life in all the nominally shallow ways that parents gripe about—laundry, sleep issues, temper tantrums on both their part and yours—that ultimately add up to selfish concerns. Many of the things that parents hate are little more than complaints about no longer being able to be a young person with no accountability to anyone other than themselves. But there is one way that parenting has changed me that I didn’t anticipate: I’m no longer capable of nihilism. I am surrounded by people with futures that are meaningful to me, so I find the idea that the world lacks meaning to be observably idiotic.

Every Friday is Family Night at our house, one of the ways we create meaning for our children. We watch a movie together and make popcorn. First I get them whatever they want for dinner, which is always McDonald’s. On a recent Friday, we went after my daughter finished her first ALICE training lesson in class. We decided to opt her out of the in-person drill because it seemed utterly macabre on top of not being proven effective, but had a tougher time justifying keeping her out of the written lessons. We live in America, so my daughter needs to learn how to properly lock a door when someone with a rifle wants to shoot her to death. (There’s an election coming up, so maybe the person that I vote for will do something to help make this no longer be a consideration people like me have to make. Or maybe someone will shoot me first so that I don’t have to think about it anymore.)

“It was actually kind of fun,” my daughter said while we waited in the drive-thru. “We learned about how to block a door, and they showed me all the places that we can hide together.” My first instinct was to cringe and jump in and tell her that everything would be all right and that it was all very silly and that she would be OK, but she sounded happy enough. She didn’t see any reason to think it was weird, or concerning. To her, this was just a new part of school, like finding the water fountains or the restroom. There’s the corner where I go if my classmates are being shot. A half a century of immanentizing the eschaton and this is what we’ve got: piles of dead kids and a training manual for marginally decreasing—we hope—the ease with which they are murdered.

At home that night, my daughter didn’t mention the ALICE training again, other than to tell her mother she did it and it went fine. There was nothing left to say about it; the imperative of the lesson had already rooted itself in my daughter’s consciousness. Not that she needed the help, given that she was 15 feet away from a shooting at the Highland Park public pool a couple of summers ago, when an argument over the contents of a cooler ended up with a man retrieving a pistol from his glove box. Nobody got hurt, but nobody felt the same after. I remember feeling really sorry for our family for a day or two until my friend let me know that they’d seen something similar when their kids were that age, and we laughed about the fact that this is what our kids see. Our kids will see death, will hear it in our voices and our concerns, will watch it on their televisions. It’s hard work making martyrs. My son asks me when I’ll die, tells me he’ll die, and has been scared of fire alarms and other loud, sudden noises since the gunfire at the pool. I tell him noises can’t hurt him, which is a lie. I lie to them a lot.

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