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."

Trump expects that when reports on the Sandy Hook shootings are complete, they will show that everything possible was done, short of having an armed guard at the door — something that few primary schools do, he said. School resource officers are more likely to be found in secondary schools, where their presence is meant to address the potential for student crime, along with school safety needs.

Increasing the number of officers stationed in elementary schools is something to consider for the future, Trump said. But other conversations might be more important.

"I don't think we need to toss out the playbook," Trump said. "We need more schools to implement the fundamentals that have been in the book all along. I see it all the time — schools where people are not stopped and checked, and crisis teams are not meeting regularly."

Investments in school security that swelled after the Columbine shootings have dwindled during the recession, Trump said. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report that showed federal, state and local budget cuts "have had a profound effect on school safety and security in recent years, forcing administrators to reduce these staff and programs, restructure security departments, and develop alternative ways to maintain a high level of safety and security within their schools."

The report details the elimination of the Title IV state grant component of the federal Safe and Drug-Free schools program, effective July 1, 2010, that dismantled programs providing school safety and prevention efforts. Funding cuts to school security at state and local levels compound the loss of federal funds, the report said.

Wanting guarantees

School resource officers provide an extra layer of safety in schools, Trump said, but providing more of them requires re-prioritizing budget needs.

"In an ideal world, most parents want an armed officer at each building — or maybe one detailed to each of the kids," Trump said. "As a father, I would like a 100 percent guarantee that my kid is safe. I know that can't be provided — we need to stay rational."

As a mom, Brooks worries about sending her two school-age sons out her door in the morning, knowing the world outside is a scary place. She has arrived at a measure of peace, though. Her boys leave for school armed with kisses and prayers.

"You still have to live," she said. "I can't let things like this destroy my faith in the people that are doing good things in teaching my kids. I put my faith in the Lord when they are gone, and do what I can to protect them, but you can't protect them from everything. I'm grateful for the measures that are in place, so I can feel safe to send them to school."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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