Countering the Media Narrative
Positive Outcomes of an Active Assailant Protocol
- By Dr. Brooke Miller Gialopsos, Dr. Cheryl Lero Jonson, Dr. Melissa M. Moon
- February 01, 2021
As schools reopen this fall, districts
not only have to navigate the challenges
of COVID-19, but also have
to resume regular emergency drills,
including active assailant response
trainings. While mass school shootings are
exceptionally rare, they elicit strong emotional
In an effort to prevent and mitigate the
harm of a shooting, schools have increasingly
installed target-hardening measures,
such as metal detectors and access control
measures, and hired school resource officers.
However, one of the most controversial
responses is the introduction of active assailant
response training among students.
With the number of schools across the
United States implementing active assailant
response training growing substantially, so,
too has the debate surrounding their effectiveness
and psychological impact. On one
side, advocates argue that training students
saves lives by teaching them what to do in an
active threat situation and are an unfortunate,
but necessary, reality in today’s world.
On the other side, opponents argue these
trainings are not necessary due to the rarity
of mass school shootings and that trainings
may provide potential shooters with a blueprint
to carry out an attack. Notably, opponents
most strongly contend that such trainings
are traumatizing, creating fear and
anxiety among students.
Contributing to this debate is the vast differences
in the content and the implementation
of active assailant response training
After the research team trained and/or
became certified in the most popular programs
addressing active threats for students
Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate
(ALICE); Civilian Response to Active Shooter
Events (CRASE); Run. Hide. Fight; Student
Attacker Response Course (SARC),
SRP/SRM – Standard Response Program/
Standard Reunification Method, researchers
were able categorize the prevailing active
assailant response trainings into three distinct
The first category, single-option response,
requires students to respond to an active
assailant by turning off the lights, locking the
door and hiding in a corner. The second category,
dual-option response, combines single-
option techniques with evacuating if one
is unable to get behind a locked door.
This category includes the PreK-12 student
response found in SRP/SRM. Finally,
the third category, multi-option response,
provides students with three options. The
selection of options is based on the students’
proximity to the assailant and include locking
and barricading the door with available
environmental objects (e.g., chairs, desks),
evacuating the building, and actively resisting
by throwing items or physically countering
ALICE; CRASE; Run. Hide. Fight; and
SARC are considered multi-option programs.
It is important to note that in dual- and multi-option
responses, persons have autonomy to
choose which option they feel is best in an
active threat situation. As single-, dual-, and
multi-option responses provide students with
different strategies to respond to an active
threat, the impact on students’ psychological
well-being is likely to vary substantially
between these three categories.
In addition to teaching different content,
the implementation of single-, dual-, and
multi-option responses differ significantly
across schools. For example, some use discussion-
based exercises where teachers talk
to students about how to respond; whereas,
other schools conduct drills where the students
actually practice the content they have
Furthermore, some schools hold functional
and full-scale exercises with simulated gunfire
and actors recreating an active assailant situation,
against the best practices suggestions
from the National Association of School Psychologists,
the National Association of School
Resource Officers, ALICE and Safe and Sound
Schools. Just as the implementation of the
training varies widely, so, too, can the psychological
impact on students.
While schools grapple with what and how to deliver training to students, decisions are often based on emotion
and anecdotal evidence. Despite the vast amount of media attention
this issue garners, there remains limited research empirically assessing
the impact that active assailant protocols have on students’ wellbeing.
As a result, we sought to add to the small, but growing, body
of research on the psychological impact of these trainings among
elementary through high school students.
In late 2019, researchers surveyed 350 children in fourth and fifth
grade, and 908 children from sixth through 12th grade in a Midwestern
school district. In partnership with school staff, we developed
age-appropriate surveys to assess both the negative (scared/fear) and
positive (preparedness, confidence) psychological impacts of the district’s
active assailant response training as well other routinely practiced
emergency drills (fire drills, tornado drills, Stranger Danger
discussions). Specifically, this district taught students the multi-option
ALICE protocol through discussion-based exercises.
Published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed journal Victims &
Offenders, we found nearly nine in 10 students across all grade levels
surveyed did not feel more scared/fearful after the ALICE training. In
fact, no more than 13% of students reported being more scared/fearful
after the training, with students most fearful of the Lockdown
option of ALICE and least fearful of the Counter option. These results
are similar to the percentages of students feeling more scared/fearful
after participating in tornado drills and Stranger Danger discussions.
Furthermore, more than 88% of students reported no change or
increased feelings of safety after being trained in ALICE, and more than
86% of Sixth through 12th grade reported no change or an increase in
feelings of preparedness and confidence after the ALICE training.
Reaction to Training
Additionally, we sought to determine what factors predicted if a student
would have a positive or negative reaction to the training. A consistent
finding across all grade levels was that students who were scared
of other emergency preparedness responses were more likely to experience
a negative psychological outcome after the ALICE training.
This suggests that there may be something unique to those individual
students (anxiety, prior trauma) as opposed to the ALICE
training. Moreover, for sixth through 12th grades, students who were
trained more often in ALICE reported higher levels of confidence.
Thus, our findings run counter to common media portrayals of active
assailant response protocols traumatizing students.
Instead, we uncovered that for the vast majority of students, multi-option,
discussion-based trainings either do not affect or result in
greater feelings of safety, preparedness, and confidence without contributing
to increased feelings of fear.
Although our research highlights the potential benefits of a discussion-
based, multi-option active assailant protocol, schools should
take the utmost care to ensure that the small percentage of students
who experience distress get the support they need after an active
assailant response training and other standard emergency drills.
This study, along with the prior research on the topic, can assist
schools in implementing an evidence-based approach to active assailant
response training that does not psychologically scar students. While our
findings have important implications for school districts generally, the
results have become particularly salient as schools are navigating the
challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion-based
exercises utilized in our study can easily be taught to students
while maintaining current social distancing guidelines.
This article originally appeared in the January February 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.