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School safety: Can we do more?

Published: Friday, Dec. 21 2012 6:40 p.m. MST

Texas mother Brooke Brooks recalls the elementary school of her Utah childhood as a happy place where parents and other visitors came and went freely, entering unchallenged at any of several unlocked doors to volunteer in classrooms or bring treats. She liked the informality and the sense of being part of a warm, open community at school.

When her oldest son started school in Katy, Texas, Brooks felt the chill of safety procedures that required her to sign in, leave her driver's license with the school secretary and don a name badge before entering the locked entrance to her child's school. "Can't we let these kids just be kids?" she remembers thinking. "Why do things have to be so structured and serious?"

Now, because of the horrific shootings at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, she understands.

Reviewing protocols

During the decade that followed the 1999 massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School, security measures tightened at schools across the United States. By 2010, 92 percent of U.S. schools had controlled access to buildings and 61 percent used security cameras, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. More than two-thirds of students reported the presence of security guards or police officers in their schools, and 91 percent reported adult supervision in hallways.

In the wake of last week's shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, U.S. school districts are once again reviewing their security policies and equipment and reaching out to parents with assurances that their children will be safe at school.

In Indiana, Indianapolis Public Schools is re-examining security procedures that have already been strengthened, said IPS spokesman John T. Althardt.

"It would be naïve for our school district or any other to experience something like we have as a country and not go back and review our safety and security plans," Althardt said. "This has shaken all of us in public education. We know how much we value our students and our staffs and having secure buildings. We don't ever think it's going to be us, but we are always reviewing our security."

A 66-person police department provides ongoing security for IPS, with officers stationed in high schools and middle schools, Althardt said. Across the nation, NCES data show that armed security staff is present at 68 percent of high schools, 54 percent of middle schools and 20 percent of primary schools.

IPS is grappling with the best way to conduct lockdowns. "Our concern is that if doors are locked, you can create situations where rescuers and first aid might be delayed. We have to review that," Althardt said.

Seeking answers

"Many parents are feeling hopeless, helpless and powerless because they are hearing that Sandy Hook's security was state of the art, and it still happened," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm in Cleveland.

Trump looks at the situation differently. The system in place at Sandy Hook — a locked school door with a security camera — delayed the gunman while the school secretary turned on the public address system, allowing teachers to hear the gunshots and implement lockdown procedures in all but two classrooms. Without Sandy Hook's security updates, many more casualties could have occurred, he said.

"They had security measures and access control, and the principal and psychologist pursued toward the shooting. The teachers knew the lockdown procedures. You are buying seconds, and seconds count."

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