School Climate & Safety

Principal’s Plan: Have Students Hurl Canned Goods at School Intruders

By Evie Blad — January 14, 2015 2 min read
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A principal at a Valley, Ala. middle school got a lot of attention this week when she asked parents to send canned goods to school with their students. The plan? Hurl the canned goods at school intruders to distract or hurt them should they ever gain access to a classroom.

Where did this idea come from? And would it work?

Priscella Holley, the principal at W.F. Burns Middle School, sent a letter home to parents Friday after school officials learned of a method of responding to school shooters called ALICE, which is an acronym and stands for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.” The letter asked families to send 8-ounce canned food items to school with their students.

“We realize at first this may seem odd; however, it is a practice that would catch an intruder off guard,” she wrote in the letter, according to CBS affiliate WRBL.

“The canned food item could stun the intruder or even knock him out until the police arrive,” she wrote. “The canned food item will give the students a sense of empowerment to protect themselves and will make them feel secure in case an intruder enters their classroom.”

I called the creator of ALICE training to see what she thinks of the canned goods idea.

Lisa Crane is a former principal who helped create the training with her husband, a police officer, after the 1999 shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School.

While the school’s plan to use canned goods is not a recommendation ALICE trainers make, it’s not out of line with the approach, and it’s not something they would discourage, Crane said. The school likely got the idea as part of the most controversial part of ALICE, the “counter” portion of the training, which teaches educators to work with students to distract a shooter and affect his or her shooting accuracy by making noise, and throwing classroom materials, she said.

It’s a technique used by police, who may use a non-lethal explosive to create chaos and interupt a shooting, Crane said. Here’s how the ALICE Training Institute describes the technique:

Counter focuses on disruptive actions that create noise, movement, distance and distraction with the intent of reducing the shooter's ability to shoot accurately. Creating a dynamic environment decreases the shooter's chances of hitting a target and can provide the precious seconds needed in order to evacuate. ALICE does not endorse civilians fighting an active shooter, but when confronted directly in a life-and-death situation, individuals should use any actions necessary to defend themselves. Counter is a last-ditch and worst-case scenario option. Counter is about survival. It is about the last moments between a shooter and a potential victim; anything a person can to do gain control is acceptable. It is the opposite of passive response because every action taken is a proactive step towards survival."

ALICE doesn’t prescribe specific materials to be used in the event of a counter situation, Crane said. In training, some schools talk about throwing things like textbooks or staplers. The idea of canned goods was suggested at a training session a few years back, and it is sometimes used as an example at training events, Crane said.

“In our training, we teach that anything can be a distraction,” Crane said. If a shooter “gets pain along with a hit from something you’ve thrown, that’s just a side benefit.”

Would it work?

Crane couldn’t name a school that had ever used the counter technique in a real active shooter situation. The six ALICE-trained schools that have used their training in intruder situations have all stopped short—relying instead on the more common approach of locking down classrooms, she said.

Countering is a last resort, Crane said.

But some school safety experts have questioned such confrontational approaches.

School emergency guidelines released by the Obama administration in 2013 suggested that school employees try to fight an intruder when given no other choice. From an Education Week story about that guidance:

While the White House document says this should be done as a last resort, that message is easily lost, said Michael Dorn, the executive director of the Atlanta-based Safe Havens International, which advises schools on safety and emergency planning. In his experience, when school employees are given the idea that in rare circumstances, fighting or disarming a shooter is an option, it's the only thing that comes to mind for far less serious scenarios. In drills, school employees have become so focused on fighting a shooter they have forgotten to take the basic step of locking their classroom doors.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.