The Herald Bulletin

February 23, 2013

School safety: Part preparation, part prayer

Local districts react to Sandy Hook massacre

By Dani Palmer
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — As Anderson Preparatory Academy Commandant Robert Guillaume puts it, “no place is fail-safe.”

Parents and educators were tragically reminded of that in December in Newtown, Conn., when Adam Lanza, 20, entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children, before he killed himself.

In Madison County, schools immediately began reviews of facility safety measures and crisis plans. Some sent updated blueprints to police, so that officers would have quick facility access in the event of a shooting or hostage situation.

Liberty Christian Schools in Anderson has a detailed plan, and every teacher and employee must sign a form to acknowledge they have read it, according to interim Superintendent Lisa Huff.

“We have always felt very confident in our crisis plan,” she said, adding that the Madison County Emergency Management Agency has used the plan as an example for other schools.

But, Huff added, the Sandy Hook shootings heightened awareness and reminded educators that such a tragedy can happen anywhere.

According to the School-Associated Violent Death Study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control from 1999 — the year two students in Littleton, Colo., murdered 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves — to 2006, 116 students were killed in 109 separate incidents in the United States.

Sandy Hook was the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, following the Virginia Tech massacre that claimed 32 lives in April 2007.

While there’s a need to take safety precautions, school officials said, there’s also a need to quell student fear.

Gayle Gernand, principal of East Elementary in Pendleton, provided the following counsel to her staff:

“We need to be prepared. We need to know how to respond and protect. School needs to be a safe place, and it should provide a nurturing and supportive environment. I believe that it is extremely important that while in the process of creating a safer school environment for our children, that we do not plant fear, distrust and apprehension in them. Children should not be anxious or fearful about attending school.”

Frankton-Lapel and Elwood Community schools installed buzzer-and-camera systems at school facility entrances shortly after Sandy Hook. The systems stop visitors outside and enable office personnel to determine whether to “buzz” them into the building. Both districts also added or replaced internal camera monitoring systems.

In addition to those changes, Frankton-Lapel Superintendent Bobby Fields said, teachers now teach with classroom doors locked.

“It’s not convenient during the school day,” he acknowledged. “But it’s unfortunately, in this day and age, a necessary thing to do,” In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, government officials and school and police officials across the country have discussed the possibility of adding armed security guards or arming teachers.

In Terre Haute, the Vigo County School Board has approved plans to place an armed police officer in each school at a cost of $353,000 a year. The schools would pick up half the cost and the county the other half. Vigo County Council has not yet approved the plan.

Officials at Liberty Christian and Frankton-Lapel have discussed adding armed guards at their facilities but have not acted on it.

Alexandria-Monroe Community Schools Safety Coordinator Scott Zent said officials there work “hand-in-hand” with local police, who do building walkthroughs when in the vicinity. Some school systems, such as Anderson Community and Elwood, have had police officers in their buildings part time since before the tragedy at Sandy Hook.

In South Madison Community Schools, the district’s safety team is “working with local police departments to begin developing training for teachers and staff concerning how to react should there be an intruder and/or active shooter,” according to Mark Matlock, SMCS director of support services.

Anderson Preparatory collaborated with the Anderson Police Department SWAT team to hold a mock shooting with student and parent volunteers in January — an event Anderson Police Chief Larry Crenshaw said was historic for Madison County.

“Parents are sending their kids to school hoping they come back,” APA sophomore Veronica Marquez said shortly after the mock shooting.

Some schools, such as Anderson Community, conducted safety drills before winter break. Others, including Frankton-Lapel, staged drills after break. Alexandria’s Zent said the goal of such drills is to ensure “everyone is on the same page and knows what to do.”

APA’s Guillaume and other local school officials said they would continue to upgrade and review procedures to be as safe as possible.

While local school officials agree that no measures can ensure absolute safety, Fields added that schools will continue to reflect, review and “pray nothing ever happens.”

Find Dani Palmer on Facebook and @DaniPalmer_THB on Twitter, or call 640-4847.