A group of school administrators sits quietly in a classroom Tuesday afternoon at Rapid City Central High School, their faces obscured by protective masks.

They're expecting a gunman.

Then, unexpectedly, a man in a bright blue shirt jumps up with a fake knife and goes berserk. Then the yelling starts, as people shove into each other and desks clatter. A swarm of people surrounds "the bad guy" with the knife, who is soon on the ground under a dog pile of fellow trainees. "Safety, safety, safety!" rings out through the room — a literal safety word, in this case — and the scenario is over as quickly as it began. 

This is ALICE.

ALICE stands for "Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate" and is an active shooter response training for civilian organizations like schools and churches. It teaches a variety of tactics and strategies for handling violent situations, subscribing to a more proactive approach than the "lockdown" procedure many schools and other organizations use.

Prior to ALICE, the Rapid City school district implemented the lockdown procedure, which mainly entails turning off the lights in a classroom, locking the doors and instructing students to get under their desks.

In April, the Rapid City Area Schools board of education approved a three-year, $36,500 contract with ALICE to provide training to approximately 1,500 district employees, and to certify 50 employees within the district as instructors.

The first round of that training was held Monday and Tuesday for about 50 school administrators and school liaison officers. Joe Chavalia, a national trainer with the ALICE Training Institute, was on hand for the two-day training, which alternated between classroom-style instruction complete with a PowerPoint and a white board, and active shooter (or stabber) drills, complete with a "bad guy." 

"You can't be more places than one, but you can be prepared for the one place that you are," he told an audience of about 50 administrators.

Chavalia said ALICE offers an “options-based approach” developed from evidence-based research that emphasizes the need to adapt to different situations, communicate information about the intruder’s location, evacuate when safe and resist when necessary.

"The standard protocol everybody had been using for decades doesn't work. It doesn't incorporate basic human responses of fight or flight," he said. 

Training empowering for staff 

ALICE has come under fire from some critics, who take particular issue with the "counter" portion of the training. Countering can include throwing things (soft, red balls were distributed during the training to throw at the pretend bad guys), making noise, or otherwise attempting to distract the aggressor.

But Chavalia said what it means to "counter" is often misunderstood, and emphasized that the training does not teach, or even encourage, fighting. Instead, countering is meant as a means to exploit a distraction — like a Nerf ball to the face — as a means to gain control in a situation where escape is not an option. 

Holly Yamada, principal at Black Hawk Elementary School, said she sees the new training as a positive, calling it empowering for staff and students. She and her husband, Kyle Yamada, principal at Corral Drive Elementary, were both in the room on Tuesday when Valley View Elementary School Principal Gregg McNabb wielded the plastic knife. Described afterward by his colleagues alternately as "a fury of turquoise," "the teal bandit" and Aquaman, McNabb successfully caught multiple people off guard, including the Yamadas.

"I got stabbed right in the kidney," Kyle Yamada said ruefully. 

For a few seconds, the training felt almost real. Holly Yamada saw McNabb right away, as he "stabbed" her husband. Then she remembers screaming.

"You don’t expect it, because we all work together. So it just was so out of context," Holly Yamada said. "Which would be like a classmate jumping up and doing something in a classroom, it just, for kids, it would be unexpected."

Rapid City Police Officer Jake Kelley, school liaison officer for North Middle School, was among the law enforcement officers helping to facilitate the training on Tuesday. He said the program gives power back to the victims by giving them options and choices for how to respond in a deadly situation.

As a police officer and the father of a sixth-grader attending East Middle School, he sees that as a very good thing.

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"I think giving the power back to the victim empowers people, and these crazy numbers we see from these active killer situations, it helps bring those numbers way down," he said. "Because the active killer, statistically when confronted with resistance in any form, that’s when the situation normally stops."

Running through scenarios 

On Tuesday, trainees split between two classrooms at Central High, the Spanish room and the German room, while going through different scenarios. In the first scenario, administrators milled in the hallways until an air horn blasted, signifying gunshots.

The idea of the training is to use things already in the classroom environment. In one classroom, the trainees quickly set to work barricading the door by stacking desks in front of it. Things like an extension cord can also be tied to the door to help secure it.

After each scenario, the administrators gathered back in the hallway to "debrief" and talk about the drill — how did they respond? How long did it take to secure the door? Did anyone think to call 911? 

After the debriefing, trainees file back into the auditorium for more classroom-style instruction.

For the Yamadas, though, the point of ALICE really became clear on Monday, when they did a similar scenario to Tuesday's drills, but implementing the lockdown procedure. Kyle Yamada said they did the lockdown like they've been doing it for years — hiding under desks, locking doors and turning out the lights. Then the "gunmen" breached the door, entered the room with airsoft rifles and started "shooting." Even in a drill, Kyle and Holly both described feeling powerless to do anything.

"And all you can think about is, hoping you’re lucky. Hoping he doesn’t see you. Wanting to be invisible. You just feel helpless," Holly said.

After Tuesday's training, however, they see the ALICE program as a positive for the school district, as something that can empower the students and staff members. 

"You feel empowered, and I think that’s one of the most important things with our students and staff, so they don’t feel helpless," Holly said.

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Metro/Digital Editor

Metro (assignment)/digital editor for the Rapid City Journal.