A student leaves McCall after the school day. Only grades 9-12 are being trained in the ALICE "countering" techniques. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

What should students do if there’s an active shooter in the school? For years, the School District of Philadelphia’s answer was to barricade themselves as the school went into lockdown. But now, teachers and older students in Philly are being taught to “counter” shooters. 

Called ALICE training, the new style of drill was announced at the end of August along with other safety measures, but was mostly lost in the buzz over drones and gun-detecting artificial intelligence.

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate, which is what it teaches participants to do. “Countering” is anything that distracts the shooter and makes it harder for them to harm someone, according to ALICE’s website. This can include throwing objects, making loud noises, and in some cases tackling the shooter. 

Andrew Saltz, a teacher at Paul Robeson High School in West Philly, described part of the video used during the new training.

“They got this strategy … how to confuse the attacker. They got a bunch of kids holding objects, like random objects, and [say], ‘This is what you do,’” Saltz said. 

He’s worried this puts too much pressure on students and may unnecessarily stress them out. “I think that gives them a existential sense of dread,” he said, noting that most school shootings happen in suburban areas, not cities. 

ALICE training has many critics, and an investigation by gun violence-focused news outlet The Trace found that little evidence exists to support its methods.

Not all Philly teachers have completed the new training yet, so the district’s current procedure is still to lock down the building until the Philadelphia Police Department gives an all-clear signal, according to school district spokesperson Marissa Orbanek. 

During a lockdown, all entrances are locked and students take shelter in the nearest classroom, Orbanek said. This happens at one district school or another every couple of days during the academic year, per 2019 data. About a quarter of lockdowns are because of shootings.

Niyana Taylor, a senior at Constitution High School in Center City, does not put much faith in lockdowns. 

“When we do lockdowns I feel as though we’re not safe,” Taylor said. “Yes the door is locked, but anybody can get through the door, you know, get right through the glass and get to shoot on us.”

This story is part of a project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting examining educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.

The district is implementing ALICE because the current procedure doesn’t give students and staff the option to evacuate to a safe location, Orbanek said. Training will differ depending on the grade level, with K-8 students doing lockdown and evacuation drills and high schoolers also being taught to counter.

“Students in grades 9-12 are old enough to understand the counter technique and have the ability and size to carry it out,” Orbanek said. 

Over the past few years, two thirds of victims in Philadelphia were shot within 1,000 feet of a school, according to a 2022 Inquirer analysis. Shootings overall have dropped 25% in Philly since last year, but are still at decade-high levels, and about 1 in 10 victims are under 18. Almost 140 children have been shot this year so far, according to data from the City Controller’s office. 

Not everyone is in favor of what’s generally referred to as “options-based” training.

Ebony White, a licensed professional counselor and associate clinical professor at Drexel University, compared ALICE training to turning students into child soldiers.

“I just worry that because of the society we live in, we’re now going to have more people trying to disarm or trying to take down the shooter, putting themselves at more risk because that’s just the undercurrent of what’s happening in society,” White told Billy Penn. 

Students gather and wait to cross the street after school.

It’s good for people to be aware of their surroundings, White said, but school should be a safe space where students can let their guards down and focus on learning and develop a sense of self. Anxiety about potential school shootings messes with that and can interfere with a student’s psychological development, she added.

Pennsylvania schools must hold an active shooter drill within 90 days of the start of the academic year, per state law. 

Public schools in Pittsburgh implemented ALICE training in 2019. “Countering is not about fighting,” a trainer explained during one drill, according to Public Source. “It’s about exploiting weakness.”

To help implement the training locally, the Philly School District hired New Jersey security consulting firm Atriade, according to Orbanek. In addition to ALICE, the district will also be deploying “minimally invasive” gun-detecting AI, increasing police presence around schools, and expanding the Safe Path program to nine new schools.

“Safe environments are critical for our students and staff to learn and grow, which is why safety is one of our top priorities in the district’s new five-year strategic plan, Accelerate Philly,” Superintendent Tony Watlington said in an August statement announcing the new measures. “We cannot accelerate student academic outcomes if our students do not have safe environments where they can learn and grow.”

Teacher Lou Lozzi, also at Robeson High School in West Philly, feels like the district’s hands are tied. 

“I think you reach a point where if you’re a district administrator and you have a government official breathing down your neck saying, ‘You gotta teach this, you gotta teach this,’ you pick something off the shelf,” he speculated. 

The only way the issue is going to get fixed for real, he believes, is if the government takes action to cut down on the prevalence of guns. Philadelphia is currently suing Pennsylvania for the right to enact stronger firearms regulations.

“I just feel bad, in a way, because how did we get here?” Lozzi said. “Like, what the hell are we doing?”