This story is part of a KXAN series of reports called “Stop Mass Shootings,” providing context and exploring solutions surrounding gun violence in the wake of the deadly Uvalde school shooting. We want our reports to be a resource for Texans, as well as for lawmakers who are convening a month after the events in Uvalde to discuss how the state should move forward. Explore all “Stop Mass Shootings” stories by clicking here.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Sitting on their colorful rug, a group of kindergartners listened carefully. Laminated lessons lined the walls of the classroom with numbers, shapes and the ABCs.
Their teacher joined them, sitting in the back, but it wasn’t story time on the rug on this day.
The students were learning key skills, including how to find good hiding spots, be quiet and move through their classroom and school like ninjas.
This type of lesson has played out in classrooms across the country including in rural Wyoming.
“My kids came home from school and talked about how they learned to play hide-and-seek,” said Sarah Walker, whose kindergartner and second grader participated in an active shooter training. “We’re very open with our kids about the possibility of things like this happening, and we view it as just part of their education. And when they’re learning it in school, it carries over into everyday life — when we travel to a bigger city, and we go to an event where there’s a lot of people, and something could happen.”
Walker isn’t only a parent but a coach at Johnson County School District #1, which has about 1,200 students.
Kindergartners to high schoolers and staff participated in the training in April.
“Gives me as a mom a little bit of peace of mind that my child has been given some tools to understand how to make decisions in moments when we would typically rely on the adult to protect us,” Walker explained. “Now we’re allowing the kids to understand how to not just listen to the adults, and do what the adults are telling them in those crisis moments, but also to feel empowered that they’ve — they’ve been given the information, and they have the knowledge to make a choice, so that they can also kind of protect themselves if there was to be an incident.”
Hide-and-seek and ninjas
Across the country, students are learning how to react in an active shooter scenario.
“It’s the missing link — it’s the only piece that for years and years, because we’re afraid to empower kids, you know, that that is lacking,” said Joe Deedon, founder and president of TAC*ONE Consulting out of Denver.
Deedon’s program provides the curriculum. He started the program designed for students and tailored to each grade level several years after the mass shooting in Columbine.
“Everyone’s still about this traumatizing tag out there — the stigma, but yet, you’re just, you’re holding your kids back from not giving them some actual valuable life skills, right?” Deedon explained. “It’s just like stranger danger, sex assault prevention. We talk about those things with our kids all the time, how to keep themselves safe, and we’re not around them as adults, you know, as protectors.”
While younger students play hide-and-seek and learn to be ninjas, older students work on learning how to be more involved in the response.
“We do the barricading, the evacuation in groups, and then we also do the fighting back portion to where if a staff member were to subdue an adult and ask for help, you know, we teach those kids how to go basically trap a limb,” explained Deedon.
Deedon and his team don’t use high-stress drills with real weapons. He said with the high schoolers, they use an orange plastic gun and are suited up in safety gear for an exercise where students learn to take down a shooter.
“The high school age kids are like, ‘Wow, you know, I’ve always felt like a sitting duck, where I felt so powerless, you know, when we run these drills, but yet now I feel like I have a plan,'” Deedon said.
High schoolers also get a breakdown of recent mass shootings like what happened in 2018 in Parkland, Florida and weigh the decisions made by students that day.
“We show them the Parkland animation, where, you know, some of the skills that were taught would have saved, you know, half or two-thirds of those kids’ lives,” Deedon explained.
For Johnson County School District #1, it’s about giving students skills to respond in a stressful situation.
“It’s really about empowering students and staff to make decisions that … could save their lives,” explained Charles Auzqui, superintendent of Johnson County School District #1. “When I say the word ’empowering,’ I want to make it clear to say we don’t want people to be victims. So we’re empowering them to be successful, and not that victim mentality, that they can’t do anything about it. But it is definitely age-appropriate with what we do.”
Texas school requirements
He’s tasked the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center or ALERRT to provide the training to not just school-based law enforcement but also school administrators.
ALERRT is based at Texas State University and provides scenario-focused training to law enforcement, first responders and civilians.
John Curnutt, assistant director at the ALERRT Center, said they’ve been contacted by more than 30 independent school district police departments since the Uvalde shooting.
The current mandatory school-based law enforcement training is based off ALERRT curriculum. However, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement or TCOLE allows any law enforcement instructor to teach the class, not just ALERRT-certified instructors who have been through extensive training and have had to pass graded portions.
“So, we do know what material should be covered, but we don’t know who taught it or how well they taught it. It isn’t just how much time one spends in training, it is also how they spend their time in training,” Curnutt explained. “The same class can be a completely different experience depending on the knowledge, skills and experience of the instructor. The ALERRT-certified instructors have been through our 40-hour train-the-trainer course and have had to pass graded portions to demonstrate their ability to teach to our standards.”
ALERRT has also partnered with the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State to create new curriculum tailored to children and teens.
Curnutt explained there is no definitive timeline right now for when the age-appropriate curriculum could be available for students in Texas.
“It has been slowed down the past two years with COVID, but we had begun to ramp up again, prior to Uvalde,” Curnutt said.
He explained part of that will include curriculum for school personnel to teach to students.
In Texas, the type of training offered by Deedon and his team is not mandatory.
The Texas Education Agency said school districts and charter schools are required to have one secure drill during a school year that focuses on threats outside of the school building, and two lockdown drills every year focused on a threat inside the school.
A recently adopted amendment to the rule, which goes into effect this week, said they are not required to do active threat exercises, which can include an “active shooter simulation.”
However, if the districts or charter schools do, the Texas Administrative Code explained it must be developmentally appropriate, have everyone involved — including parents who must be notified — and provide access to mental health support.
Too much for too young?
“Whether we want to talk about it or not, it’s something we do have to talk about. So, knowing that there’s opportunities to do it in a developmentally appropriate way and an empowering way that brings all of the community together, from the parents to the younger students to the police force, the staff, it gives a good sense of unity,” said Kristein LeDoux, Johnson County School District #1 board trustee and parent.
Ross Walker, a middle school teacher, coach and parent added he could immediately see the impact of the training.
“It makes them more aware of what they need to do,” Ross said. “It creates kind of this mental scenario where now they’ve already been through it, so they don’t get stuck thinking about what their response and reaction should be.”
Deedon explained one of the biggest hurdles has been helping schools and parents understand the training doesn’t cause anxiety or trauma to students taking part.
“I feel that the kids actually getting to do hands on and seeing what that would really look like … if they were to have to barricade in a room, what that looks like, and what they would need to do if they were stuck in a situation that there was someone right directly outside the classroom,” said Lynette Fox, Johnson County School District board trustee. “And so, by giving them those, those tools, those kids were able to see what that looks like. And I feel like that the kids took a lot away from that.”
Johnson County School District #1 hopes to bring the program back, building on the training just completed.
“In order to do it effectively, this has to be done, in my opinion over three or four years. So, it’s done effectively and then kids are reminded — it becomes a routine,” Superintendent Auzqui explained.
Since 2018, Deedon and his team have provided the training to 10 school districts in three states — about 4,000 kids have gone through the program.
“I have seen firsthand, you know, the failures of law enforcement, you know from my coworkers, peers that should have done something — didn’t,” Deedon explained. “I’ve also seen firsthand where a little bit of knowledge went a long way for these people in the shooting, when you break them down thinking, wow, they were empowered. But they had something up here that clicked that helped them make a good decision.”
Deedon said federal grants for school safety can cover the cost of training. It can cost anywhere from about $10,000 to $80,000 depending on the size of the district.