By Alana Melanson
FITCHBURG -- Lindsey LeBlanc knew her school was training students on a new safety protocol, and she thought she was prepared to meet the challenge.
But nothing prepared the petite Gardner teen, a graphic-design student at Montachusett Vocational Regional Technical School, for how she would react when an "armed intruder," portrayed by School Resource Officer Leroy Jackson of the Fitchburg Police Department, burst into the classroom and ordered everyone to get on the floor.
LeBlanc, 17, said she had held onto a broom so she could use it in the simulated attack, but she was caught off-guard when it actually happened and froze -- but only for a split second, until a classmate threw a textbook at the "intruder." While the rest of her classmates cowered, she ran toward him, hopped over a desk, rammed a chair into his legs and jumped onto his back -- all 100 or so pounds of her.
"I'd hope that in a situation like that, even though I wouldn't be nearly as prepared, I would try to do the same thing," LeBlanc said. "But I realize how hard it was to do that, because not everyone reacts the same."
The scene is one that has been playing out, albeit with differing results, in classrooms at Monty Tech over the last few weeks. It's part of the ALICE training, approved unanimously by the School Committee in the spring, which aims to give students and staff tools they can use if confronted with a school shooter or similar situation to increase their chances of survival, according to retired Marine Corps First Sgt. Paul Jornet, who leads the school's Marine Corps JROTC.
ALICE stands for Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate, and is a more proactive approach to dealing with violent situations than simply cowering in fear and waiting for an intruder to harm you or for the situation to end, he said.
Jornet starts each student training talking about past mass shooting events such as at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook Elementary School last year.
"Virginia Tech shows us that we can't be passive, we can't just stay and wait for the violence to go away," Jornet said. "It also sends that message home -- it can happen anywhere."
Alert means to be alert of your surroundings and possible danger, especially if you hear what may be gunshots. If you are unable to evacuate immediately, lock and barricade yourself where you are, covering all doors, windows and other openings. Use any means necessary to pass on real-time information to others who may be in danger, as well as to police and other forms of assistance. If confronted by an active shooter, use techniques such as throwing objects to disrupt the shooter's aim, creating as much noise as possible to confuse the shooter, and attacking the shooter as a group to disarm and bring him or her to the ground. If it is safe to evacuate, run in a zig-zag pattern until you are far enough away and bring something to throw at the shooter if necessary.
In the case that such an event occurs at Monty Tech, students should evacuate to one of two assembly sites, Jornet said, either the TRW soccer field in Westminster or the Montachusett Industrial Park in Fitchburg.
Not every step will be necessary in every situation, Jornet said, but quick action will be. That requires practice to create muscle memory, so that if and when a situation arises, students will know how to react, he said.
It may seem like a good idea at the time to grab the shooter's gun and point it back at him, Jackson said, but when police arrive and see dead and injured, they have "half a heartbeat" to determine who is a threat -- and if you're the one holding the gun, chances are they will determine it to be you. Instead, he said, it is best to place the gun in a trash or recycling receptacle and have someone guard it. In the case of evacuation, someone should hold the bin to their chest with their arms and hands stretched out so that police know it contains a weapon, Jackson said.
Everyone is familiar with "fight or flight," but the third most natural human reaction to fear -- and the worst, Jornet said -- is to freeze.
During a Wednesday training in the drafting technology shop, all of the freshmen and juniors in the room cowered in fear when Jackson charged in, and many were disappointed with their reactions.
"I really wish I'd reacted much differently," said Sara Buckley, 17, of Princeton.
"I'm really disappointed because I didn't do what I was supposed to do," said Abigail Yang, 16, of Leominster.
Jornet said he's not concerned, however, that these kids will be unprepared if confronted with an intruder. In fact, he believes they'll replay the scenario over and over again in their minds and, if confronted one day, may even surpass the reactions of their quick-acting peers.
One of the biggest lessons Jornet said he has learned through his training is that the leaders that arise out of these situations are not the ones most would expect -- in fact, like with LeBlanc, they're often the ones you expect the least.
Dakota Holden, 17, of Fitchburg, said he's never understood protocols that have students hide under desks or in closets and wait.
"I'm glad we're actually starting to do something more proactive," he said.
"I like that I have the opportunity to make my own choices, and that if I could do that, if I could jump on him, if I could stop him, I like that I'm given that option instead of hiding and waiting without any information," she said.
Shooters in situations like these can be anybody, Jornet said, but the alarming common thread among these incidents is that the shooters almost always talked about what they would do in one way or another. He urged students to tell a trusted adult if they see or hear anyone making such threats or any other concerning signs or behavior, so that a would-be shooter can be stopped beforehand.
While the training has been controversial in other areas of the state and country, Jornet said so far, no parents have objected to it.
He said parents were informed of the training through letters sent home, and an informational session will be held Wednesday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the school auditorium.
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