Cops, teachers, and more participat in ALICE training.
Staff video by Michael Izzo
INDIANAPOLIS – An active-shooter training exercise at an Indiana elementary school in January left teachers with welts and bruises after they were shot with plastic pellets by the local sheriff’s office conducting the session.
The incident, acknowledged in testimony this week before state lawmakers, was confirmed by two elementary-school teachers in Monticello, Indiana, who described an exercise in which teachers were asked by local law enforcement to kneel against a classroom wall before being sprayed across their backs with plastic pellets without warning.
“They told us, ‘This is what happens if you just cower and do nothing,’” said one of the two teachers, both of whom asked not to be identified out of concern for their jobs. “They shot all of us across our backs. I was hit four times.
“It hurt so bad.”
Now, these teachers and the state’s largest teachers union want to stop this from happening in other Indiana schools. The Indiana State Teachers Association is lobbying lawmakers to add language, prohibiting teachers from being shot with any sort of ammunition, to a school-safety bill working its way through the Statehouse.
“What we’re looking for is just a simple statement in this bill that would prohibit the shooting of some type of projectile at staff in an active shooter drill,” said Gail Zeheralis, director of government relations for the union during testimony in support of House Bill 1004 before lawmakers Wednesday.
Sheriff has stopped using pellet gun in teacher training
The White County, Indiana, sheriff said Thursday that his department had conducted similar training before but, after receiving a complaint, would no longer use the air-powered device, called an airsoft gun, with teachers.
Teachers at Meadowlawn Elementary School were supposed to be receiving what is called ALICE training, an “options-based” approach that encourages students and teachers to be proactive in their response to an active shooter and teaches tactics that include rushing a shooter in some situations.
Thousands of schools across the country are using ALICE already. Shooting teachers with plastic pellets is not typically part of the training.
‘This is not normal practice’
“I’ve worked with teachers in other districts who have gone through ALICE and this did not happen,” said Barbara Deardorff, a union director for 16 school districts in Indiana. “This is not the normal practice.”
Deardorff said the Meadowlawn incident, which she said she learned about several weeks ago, marked the first time she’d heard of such practices being used on teachers in active-shooter training.
White County Sheriff Bill Brooks, whose department led the training in question, said it has conducted active-shooter training with schools for several years and has previously used the airsoft gun.
The plastic pellets they used are 4.6 mm in diameter – slightly larger than a standard BB.
“It’s a soft, round projectile,” he said. “The key here is ‘soft.'”
‘It’s a shooting exercise’
Brooks became sheriff in January and said he couldn’t say whether or how many times teachers had been shot with it previously. He was present for part of the January training, but not the portion in which the airsoft gun was used.
“They all knew they could be,” Brooks said. “It’s a shooting exercise.”
Brooks said all the teachers involved signed up to participate. He said the department was told several weeks after the training that one teacher was upset by it. They’ve since stopped using the airsoft gun with teachers, he said.
“We were made aware that one teacher was upset,” he said. “And we ended it.”
Both of the Meadowlawn teachers who spoke to The Indianapolis Star said they were not warned by the officers beforehand that anyone would be shot. They said they were given paintball masks, which law enforcement said were a precaution for different scenarios throughout the training.
The teachers said the airsoft gun was used in several other exercises as well. Neither was hit with pellets during those scenarios, but several other teachers were.
All teachers in the first scenario were shot, though, where teachers were lined up facing a wall and shot across their backs.
Teachers whispered warnings to colleagues
One of the teachers said she was waiting in the library with her colleagues as the first small group of teachers was led into a classroom for that first session.
“The first group went in and we heard them scream and yell,” she said. “We thought, ‘What is going on?’”
The group came back out and whispered a warning to the next group – the officers had told them not to tell their colleagues what had happened – but she still wasn’t expecting what came next.
“It was like a quick spew of those pellets,” she said. “Most of us got hit several times in our backs.”
She said she had welts and one spot where the pellet broke her skin. It was scabbed over for several weeks.
Both teachers said that all Meadowlawn teachers and some cafeteria staff went through the training in January. There were two sessions, with kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers and cafeteria workers getting trained in the morning and third- through fifth-grade teachers in the afternoon.
Training injuries on the rise
A picture posted to the school’s official Facebook page on Jan. 4 shows teachers sitting around wooden tables with a law enforcement officer standing before them.
It’s captioned: “Thankful for the partnership between our school and local law enforcement. Today our staff received training from The White County sheriffs department. Safety is priority at ML!”
Ken Trump, a school-safety expert in Ohio who works with schools nationwide, said he had not heard of another incident in which teachers were shot with plastic pellets but that he’s heard many stories of teachers getting injured during active shooter training.
“Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “With some of these options-based trainings, we’ve seen (training) that’s just really over the top.”
Trump said he’s heard of a growing number of workers’ compensation claims and even some litigation stemming from teachers injured during these types of training programs. An Iowa school-insurance company reportedly paid out more than $250,000 in claims related to active shooter training injuries over a two-year period.
Often, these programs are taught in a “train the trainer” model. One or two law-enforcement officers will receive the training through an organization and then go back and train others in their department.
One teacher said the officers told the Meadowlawn staff that police had to go through this same training.
“But we are not police officers,” she said.
The two teachers said they wanted to do the training. Even after getting shot with plastic pellets that left welts, bruises and drew blood, they finished the rest of the training.
“We didn’t want to quit the training because it seemed important,” said one teacher. “It really was more than it needed to be.”
She said the other training exercises were useful, including one in which an officer pretending to be an active shooter shot the airsoft gun while teachers hid under desks and were given tennis balls to throw at him until he stopped shooting.
One of the provisions included in House Bill 1004 is a requirement that all schools conduct an active-shooter drill at least once a year. However, it does not mandate any specific type of training program.
The drill requirement was among 18 school-safety recommendations made last year by a committee pulled together by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and last spring’s shooting at Noblesville Middle School in Indiana.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Wendy McNamara, seemed amenable Wednesday to an addition of some sort. The Evansville Republican is a high-school principal in Evansville Vanderburgh Schools. Because the bill has already passed the House, though, McNamara will have to work with the Senate committee to get an amendment passed.
“I don’t believe something like that should take place in an active-shooter drill,” she said.
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