After gunman Kevin Janson Neal killed his wife and then two neighbors Tuesday morning he headed for Rancho Tehama Elementary School, weapons in hand.
It was just before 8 a.m. when teachers heard the crackle of gunfire in the small, rural town of Rancho Tehama, in Northern California. The elementary school — with about 100 students and 9 staff — immediately went on lockdown.
The training that teachers and staff practice for such emergencies helped to prevent a massive school shooting like the horror at Sandy Hook elementary in 2012, says Richard Fitzpartrick the superintendent of the school’s district.
The fact that teachers and staff have to rehearse active shooter drills may seem unsettling, but Superintendent Fitzpatrick points to a silver lining: “If we can lockdown,” he says, “our kids can go home safely at the end of the day.”
Mass shootings are a new reality that schools, teachers and administrators must learn to face. Even parents are looking for ways to protect their children by buying bullet-proof panels to slip into their backpacks in case of a school shooting. In 2017 there were 318 mass shootings in the U.S., according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence. And since Sandy Hook in 2012 — there have been more than 160 school shootings.
By some estimates, there’s a school shooting about once a week in America, so districts are preparing emergency plans. About two-thirds of all school districts in the county conduct active-shooter exercises and nearly all of them have a plan if a shooter comes into the school, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
Federal agencies recommend a run, hide, fight protocol for schools, with the fight component meant only for adults. Schools are adopting standard lockdown procedures like shutting doors, turning off lights and hiding, in addition to much more active response, such as fighting back against gunmen. Many schools have used a program that teaches this more active response called ALICE Training Institute. ALICE stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.
The program teaches school staff that they have choices, including fighting back as a last resort. That action can range from distracting the attacker, throwing books or something heavier, or group-tackling.
About a quarter of schools in the country — 3,700 — have had ALICE training, according to the organization.
The quick actions of teachers locking down the elementary school in Northern Calif., likely averted a massacre, says Phil Johnston, the assistant Tehama County Sheriff.
The shooter repeatedly tried to get through the kindergarten door, but couldn’t because staff had locked all the doors. Frustrated, he began firing at the windows and walls. Children were tucked under desks while teachers tried to keep them calm. One student was shot and is still in the hospital.
“I really, truly believe that we would have had a horrific bloodbath at that school,” Johnston says. “I can’t say how important that is.”