Schools, businesses turn to non-lethal solutions for active shooter mitigation

June 22, 2018
Amid talk of allowing teachers to carry guns, one company wants to outfit schools with pepper gel instead

In the aftermath of the recent school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, there has been a push by some lawmakers to allow teachers and other staff members to carry firearms to fight back in the event of an active shooter. The fact remains, however, that many teachers and administrators are uncomfortable with such proposals.

According to a survey conducted by Gallup in March 2018, only seven percent of U.S. teachers considered arming staff as a way of preventing future school shootings and 73 percent of those surveyed were actually opposed to the idea. Still, the thought of having no way to fight back against an armed intruder, be it on a school campus or within a corporate office complex, is unacceptable to many.

As part of an effort to bridge the gap between arming people and doing nothing, some are now advocating for the use of non-lethal weapons to help neutralize active shooters. A bill recently introduced in Michigan, for example, would enable teachers in the state to arm themselves with pepper spray and Tasers.

"A school employee who is armed with pepper spray or a Taser has the potential to save countless lives by quickly and efficiently incapacitating the gunman," State Rep. Beau LaFave, who is sponsoring the legislation, told the Holland Sentinel. "This is a simple plan that offers non-lethal options many teachers will feel comfortable using."

One company that is working to outfit schools and private organizations across the nation with a similar non-lethal option is Alternative Defense Strategies. Based in the Cleveland-area in Ohio, the company has developed a self-defense solution dubbed “Safe Zone,” which features a canister of patented pepper gel spray that can be used to disorient a shooter or other violent attacker.

The gel is available in a standalone, “Bracket Unit” version that can be easily mounted to walls, under cabinets and other hidden location or in a “Gel Box” configuration where the spray is housed within a customized, wall-mountable cabinet. The Gel Box cabinet is also available with a keypad lock to ensure that only authorized personnel can access the spray or with a bleeding control trauma kit to help those wounded in a shooting or other type of attack.  

Lori O’Neill, President of Alternative Defense Strategies, founded the company along with her brother, Bruce Childs, and their nephew, Byron Childs in 2012. O’Neill says the initial catalyst for the founding of the company and the development of their non-lethal solution came in February of that year when a teen gunman opened fire at Chardon High School in Ohio, killing three and wounded three others. The physical proximity of the shooting to their family – Byron Childs was a member of the Chardon Police Department at the time and Bruce Childs had two children in a nearby school district – really hit home for the trio, however; O’Neill says the shooting massacre later that year at Sandy Hook drove them to take action.

“For us, like many Americans, Sandy Hook was a bridge too far. All school shootings are terrible, but the idea that 20 first graders were gunned down along with six of their teachers really shocked our country,” she says. “So, we did the old-fashioned thing and gathering around the kitchen table, talked about what happened and what we saw or noticed about the event that stuck out at us and what stood out for us is that the teachers that day had no way of defending themselves or those children. We decided after talking for a couple of hours that we were going to form a company and explore the possibility of developing a non-lethal way for ordinary people to respond in situations like this.”

It took them about a year and a half to review all of the non-lethal options that were on the market before they settled on pepper spray as the solution they thought would work best.

“(Byron) really guided us and he said… ‘If you give me a choice whether to be tasered or pepper sprayed, I would choose Taser.’” O’Neill adds. “As bad as everyone thinks a Taser is, yes, it is a terrible jolt but in 30 seconds you’re back up no problem, but with pepper spray he said, ‘You’re out of commission for an hour solid and the pain of it is such that you’re not getting over it that fast.’  

In addition, because of most people’s physiological response to a fear-inducing situation like an active shooter – hearts pounding, hands shaking, sweating, tunnel vision, etc. – O’Neill explains that using pepper spray is a better alternative because it doesn’t require the same fine motor skills as firing a gun.

They subsequently set about working with a manufacturing partner to develop a pepper gel solution that would project up to 25 feet and also stick to a mask or goggles should a perpetrator be wearing them. In tandem with the pepper gel, they also created the Gel Box cabinets, locking mechanisms along with a proprietary training program, which O’Neill says really sets them apart in the market.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh yeah, I can just go grab this (from someone else),’ but it’s quite another to understand what is OC, what is the appropriate use for it, how do you alleviate it, what kind of scenarios happen in real life when these violent attacks happen, and how am I incorporating this into my workplace violence response protocol? Whatever your protocol is, whether it is Run, Hide Fight, ALICE or something else, our program integrates very easily into that,” she says.

Though their initial sales were slow in coming, O’Neill says they did get buy-in on the idea from nearly every K-12 school they pitched the product to. The majority of their sales have thus far come from the corporate world to mitigate incidents of workplace violent, which is much more commonplace than school shootings. O’Neill says that their system has been installed in three school districts, 10 churches and about 100 other organizations thus far and growing every day.

Schools, Teachers Buy-In

One school system that has adopted the Alternative Defense Strategies system is the Tuslaw Local School District located in Massillon, Ohio. Melissa Marconi, the district’s Superintendent, says that they were just not ready in their community to arm teachers with guns but that Safe Zone provided what they thought was a good non-lethal alternative.

“There’s been lots of clamoring lately about ‘arm the teachers’ and people are thinking arm them with guns and we just were not ready to do something like that,” Marconi explains. “We were looking for something that was non-lethal that would provide protection for both the staff and students and something that was reasonably priced and we got that with the pepper gel.”

Although there has been casual talk within their district before about arming teachers with guns, Marconi says those discussions really gathered momentum following the Parkland massacre and a shooting that occurred in a nearby school.

“I believe that the teachers are divided over whether or not there should be armed teachers with guns in schools but everyone is onboard with having the pepper spray,” she adds.

Within the Tuslaw district, which operates three schools – elementary, middle and high school – Marconi says they have the Safe Zone gel canisters in every building but not in every classroom. She adds that the training component provided by Alternative Defense Strategies was essential in their decision to purchase the gel.

“Without the training, it’s just another tool that no one’s really using and we don’t want that,” Marconi says adding, “we’ve got plenty of things that sit around and are kind of fly by night ideas and we don’t want this to be one of those.”

Active Shooter Training Evolves

Steven Crimando, Principal of Behavioral Science Applications and an expert in the application of behavioral sciences in homeland and private security, believes that non-lethal solutions like those offered by Alternative Defense Strategies could prove to be game-changing in how people are trained to respond to active shooters and other acts of mass violence.

“In everything we do in our training modules, we’re really trying to empower people and take away that sense of powerlessness during these crises,” he says. “People don’t want to be sitting ducks and when we can teach them strategies and actually provide them resources where they can take action, whether they end up using it or not, to know that it is available and be trained in how to use it, it actually starts to change the equation.”

According to Crimando, during an active shooter event, the perpetrator has a tactical advantage by design at the onset of the event given that everyone else is caught by surprise. And while the industry, by and large, has done a good job of teaching people about how to run or blockade themselves in a room, Crimando says no sector, education or otherwise, has really done a great job of teaching people what it means to fight back.

“After the Pulse nightclub shooting, we really went back and looked at the Department of Homeland Security’s Run, Hide, Fight (training) and historically, all of the language around that was very linear and sequential. It was run if you can, hide if you can, fight if you must, but fight should always be the last resort,” Crimando says. “In our model now, we’ve actually stopped training that way and taken it out of the sequential model and said, ‘These are still you best options, whether someone learns it as ALERT, ALICE or some other model, the core ideas are very similar, but Run, Hide and Fight we look at now as being independent options based on the totality of the circumstance – the proximity to the shooter, your level of confidence in your capabilities, the lack of other options, etc. In some instances, fight should be your very first response or maybe hide should be your first response, but not necessarily run.”

Crimando does advise those schools or organizations that are thinking about leveraging a pepper gel or spray solution to familiarize all of their personnel with how they operate and recommends that they even use a canister of it to get a feel for how it will deploy in a real-life situation.

“What we know at a behavioral science level is that people don’t rise to the occasion, they fall to their training,” he says. “And if you’re introducing an absolute novel solution to them during a time of acute stress, there’s a good chance they’re not going to be able to use that well or they are going to be surprised themselves and maybe it even affects them in some adverse way. There needs to be a real good understanding and approval, if not acceptance, by all of the relevant stakeholders in addition, of course, to the end-user in a crisis.”  

About the Author:

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected].