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Utah schools evaluate, update safety procedures in wake of campus crimes

Published: Thursday, Dec. 26 2013 5:10 p.m. MST

The Orem Police Department in conduction with Utah Valley University's Emergency Management conduct an "active shooting" drill at UVU's Browning Administration Building on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

OREM — On Tuesday, Dec. 17, at 4:30 p.m., a man with a shotgun entered the administration building of Utah Valley University and opened fire.

Utah Valley University police officers responded immediately and were soon joined by members of the Utah County Metro SWAT team and the Utah County sheriff's office.

By 4:35 p.m. the man had been neutralized and officials proceeded to evacuate students and faculty members while performing a sweep of the building.

The man was a police officer, his shotgun loaded with blank rounds, and the incident was part of a planned simulation to prepare law enforcement officials and the campus community for an active shooter event.

"We may not ever be fully prepared for something like this, but we’re commited to being as prepared as possible, and this exercise was a step in that direction," UVU spokesman Chris Taylor said.

Over the past several years, UVU has worked at updating its security procedures and staging a number of drills, Taylor said, part of a push by President Matthew Holland to increase school safety.

Drills, like the active-shooter simulation, have been conducted. Mandatory training has been implemented for campus employees, and Taylor said a staff position of director of emergency preparation and risk management has been created to provide coordination.

"This is just the beginning," he said. "It’s something we need to continue to build on and continue to reinforce the culture of safety on campus."

UVU is not alone in turning a proactive eye toward school security. In the wake of recent headline-grabbing school shootings and campus crimes, schools across the state have re-evaluated and updated policies aimed at protecting the lives and property of students and staff.

The issue of school safety extends to all levels of education, from preschool to college and university campuses. One year ago, a shooting at an elementary in Newtown, Conn., grabbed the nation's attention and prompted discussion on protecting children and preventing violence.

But since then, more than 20 shootings have occurred on school campuses in the United States, including an incident at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in April that left a campus police officer dead and is believed to have been perpetrated by suspects connected to the Boston Marathon Bombing.

Also in April, an object that appeared to be a pipe bomb was found by a maintenance worker on the roof of Mountain View Elementary in Layton, forcing an evacuation.

One month later, North Davis Junior High School in Clearfield was evacuated after authorities received a call claiming a gunman was in the building.

The information proved false, and a 13-year-old student was taken into custody, but not until students had evacuated the building with their hands in the air under the watch of armed policemen and spent the school day huddled out of sight.

Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams said school and law enforcement officials reacted to those incidents by reviewing response policies and updating security practices.

"I think part of what happened at North Davis Junior High has helped us," he said. "It was a chaotic situation and there wasn’t a command center established by the police. That’s one of those training items that the police have talked about, no matter what happens there has to be a command center established."

Williams said the district met with the chiefs of police in Davis County to create a standard response protocol, which provides a uniform procedure for officials responding to any school safety situation.

Schools now involve law enforcement officers in their safety drills, Williams aid, and are encouraged to hold lockout and evacuation drills in a regular rotation with their earthquake and fire drills.

He said school safety is a regular topic of conversation at the school and district levels as administrators determine how to regulate access to schools, from ID and security badges to the way visitors are screened.

"I think that has become part of our culture, unfortunately, but it’s good because when situations arise like this, people have to act on instinct," Williams said. "They don’t have time to go to a three-ring binder and find ‘what do I do in this situation.’ If they go through these drills, it becomes instinctive."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said he plans to recommend two changes to state policy on school safety. One would more clearly direct schools to conduct regular active-shooter and lockdown drills while the other would require schools to include policies on school access in their safety plans.

"I don’t want to dictate what doors are open and what doors are closed," Menlove said. "But I do want to make sure that as those community groups get together and talk about their school safety plans, they have a discussion about access to buildings."

Menlove said the current policy is that schools may alternate between lockdown drills and more traditional fire and earthquake drills. He said he'd like to see the "may" changed to "shall" to make it clear that schools should be regularly participating in simulations that test their ability to respond to a threat.

"I don’t want to de-emphasize the need to do fire drills, but I also think it's important that schools engage in active-shooters and lockdown drills and evacuation drills and some of those other types of things," he said.

Since the shooting in Newtown last December, Menlove and other state education officials have conducted a statewide survey of compliance to school safety policies. He said the majority of schools were already doing what was asked of them and the review process provided a reminder to local administrators on what state policy dictates.

"We have a better understanding of what is happening, but I think, even more importantly, schools now have a checklist of what we anticipate they’re going to do," he said.

At the college and university level, individual campuses are directed to develop and maintain safety policies based on the needs of that institution, said Pamela Silberman, spokeswoman for Utah System of Higher Education.

She said the higher education community regularly coordinates with state emergency services and shares best practices with sister institutions. But because of the variance from one campus to another — from the size of the student body to the location and number of buildings on campus — school administrators are better equipped to address local needs.

"They have to be focused on keeping people safe and keeping property safe, but beyond that, what makes sense at each institution can be very different," Silberman said of safety policies. "Snow College is going to be different than The U. because of the size and the location of the institution."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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