There are many layers to a tragedy such as Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that ended with 26 victims dead, 20 of them children, as well as the shooter, Adam Lanza.
As USD 383 school officials pondered how to cope with discussions about the shooting in classroom settings, they took steps Monday to reassure parents that the district is trying to make school settings as secure as possible. They also conceded that those topics are likely to be revisited in the near future.
USD 383’s recently completed $97.5 million bond issue contained $2.2 million in security improvements. That includes secure public entrances, teachers being able to lock their doors from the inside and security alarm systems.
For most schools, the renovation process created two sets of doors as well as a door to the principal’s area. Once classes start, the inside doors are locked to the outside, preventing visitors from entering the schools directly. They have to go through the principal’s office to sign in.
Frank Bergman, the two middle schools and Manhattan High School’s East Campus have a buzzer system because the principal’s office isn’t connected to the entrance.
A visitor has to ring the buzzer before office personnel lets someone in. When done properly, a visitor should be asked for identification and the reason for coming to the school.
School officials say any other doors not by the entrance at all the schools are supposed to remain locked. At Manhattan High School’s West Campus, the same logic also applies for most of the day. However, a recent open lunch discussion at a USD 383 school board meeting revealed that all 37 doors are unlocked from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. during lunch time.
Michele Jones, USD 383’s communications director, said this particular policy is likely to come up in future discussions. “No school district is perfect,” Jones said. “There are always things we need to review.”
Jones has been in charge of implementing better security measures since the district received a Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2010.
All schools have a required safety week as a part of the grant to practice various drills including a lockdown, which had to be applied at Sandy Hook Elementary during Friday’s shooting.
The state only requires schools to have drills for fire, bus evacuation and tornado, but Jones said the lockdown drill “is something we as a district felt strongly that we needed to be prepared for.”
During these safety weeks, RCPD officers come into the schools to discuss the reasons for all of the drills.
“Is it scary to talk to kids about that? Yes, but it’s too important not to have that discussion,” Jones said.
In lockdown drills, teachers lock the doors, turn off the lights, close the blinds and place students in a corner away from the door. Students who are in a hallway are advised to find a place to hide or go outside if close to a door.
Jones acknowledged there’s only so much a school can do. “It sounds like the school in Connecticut does the same thing,” she said, mentioning the lockdown. “If someone evil wants to come in, they’ll try to do so.”
Representatives of the Riley County Police Department, district administrators and building principals planned to meet Monday afternoon for a safety discussion.
The district emailed material to school personnel Monday morning designed to help them facilitate classroom discussions about the shooting.
Bergman Elementary principal Lori Martin said she’s had discussions with parents in the shooting aftermath. She said about twice as many parents picked up their kids from school Friday afternoon as usually do so.
“Parents were extremely interested in what security measures are in place,” Martin said. She said many parents apologized about initial complaints regarding the buzzer system.
Martin said Friday was a tough day for the nation. “When I went home on Friday night and watched CNN, I put myself in their shoes,” she said. “Once you get past the emotional aspect, you use it as a learning opportunity.”
Martin said she felt reassured to see that one of the national experts on CNN was Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, who has consulted with the district and visited schools.
Martin said Dorn emphasizes watching for signs of potential trouble. “The most important safety tool you have is your mind and the ability to problem solve swiftly,” she said.
Theodore Roosevelt Elementary was the site of one of the biggest changes in the renovation project. The principal’s office was moved to the front of the school.
“I feel very grateful to have the upgrades that we do,” principal Andrea Tiede said. “The district made better security a top priority in the renovation process.”
Tiede said she has also answered questions from concerned parents and anticipates more to come. “They share their children with us,” she said. “It’s a very big responsibility.”
Tiede said the reaction of the teachers in Connecticut helped avoid further tragedy. “I know beyond a shadow of doubt if it happened here, our teachers and kids would know what to do,” she said.
Many district personnel have children of their own in USD 383 schools.
Jones has two children in the 7th and 10th grade. She said Sandy Hook was on her mind Monday morning as they are at school. “I think parents across the country all step back for a moment and say to themselves they hope they see them this afternoon,” Jones said.