Connecticut shootings restart school safety discussion

Connecticut shootings restart school safety discussion

Michele Ellson

Last month’s shootings at a Connecticut elementary school have spurred fresh questions about whether schools should be doing more to keep students safe, though local schools officials say they're confident they're doing the right things.

School safety experts are saying that while it may not be possible to stop a determined attacker, many lives could be saved if the appropriate training, staffing and safety controls are in place.

“You don’t have to have a metal detector and a SWAT team in every kindergarten entrance,” school security expert Ken Trump said. “We don’t need to throw out the playbook of best practices in school safety. But we do need to make sure schools are implementing the fundamentals.”

Those fundamentals include plans for dealing with shooters and other crises – along with regular meetings between schools and public safety officials, training for teachers and school staff and lockdown and other drills for staff and students, said Trump, whose Cleveland-based consulting firm offers school security assessments, training and planning to districts all over the country.

Additional staffing like counselors and school resource officers can help prevent incidents because they can build relationships with struggling students, Trump said, while hardware like two-way radios for staff, locks for classroom doors or a camera and intercom system for entry could provide a crucial deterrent or delay if used in tandem with planning and training.

“Any type of security technology is only as effective as the people behind it,” he said. “The best line of defense is a well-trained staff and student body.”

Here in Alameda, police and public school administrators said they believe they’ve got a better handle on safety than other school districts because their safety plans have been battle-tested through drills and actual use, and they meet and train regularly to make sure they’re ready to put them into action when needed.

“In many ways, we’re (further) ahead of this process than where other districts are,” said Kirsten Zazo, the school district official charged with managing safety plans for Alameda’s public schools.

District officials said that they’ll continue to meet and review their procedures but that they’re confident in the steps they’ve taken, though they said they will also look at individual schools to assess vulnerabilities. A meeting is scheduled for later this month, they said.

Alameda Unified has district-wide and school-based plans in place to address crises ranging from gas leaks to an armed assailant on campus – those are required by state law – and they perform drills and meet regularly to make sure Alameda’s schools are prepared if a disaster or incident occurs, school district administrators said, though they did the district's emergency plan or any of the schools' plans despite repeated requests for those materials.

Three of Alameda’s high schools have free health clinics on campus, which offer mental health care to students.

The district once had school resource officers on all of its middle and high school campuses, Morten said, though their numbers have declined in recent years to include an officer at Alameda High and another at Encinal High who also handles issues that come up at the district’s remaining middle schools and its elementary schools, Alameda Police Officer Hank Morten said. Morten, a onetime school resource officer, said that the officers spend 90 percent of their time at the high schools.

The campus-based officers’ role includes reducing crime on campus and making students and staff feel safer if there’s criminal activity nearby, and to build relationships with school staff, students and families - and at-risk youth in particular – in order to promote safety.

Morten said that when he came to Alameda 11 years ago from San Francisco, he brought a “safe schools” program he developed as an officer in that city with him and tailored it for Alameda’s schools. The program has since been implemented at all of Alameda’s public and private schools, and has also been passed on to other school districts across Alameda County.

The program includes protocols designed to keep students safe in the midst of a range of crises, reunite them with their parents as quickly as possible and provide mental health resources to address any trauma they may have suffered. Ultimately, its goal is to contain and control students while police are called in to neutralize any potential threat – and to minimize injuries and deaths in the event of a catastrophic event like the Newtown shootings.

“In a nutshell, it’s controlling chaos,” Morten said of the program.

Police and district officials meet regularly to discuss safety procedures, they said, and they said teachers and staff are trained on them. Morten said the district conducts a training before the start of school each year.

Students take part in lockdown drills – three to four times a year at the district’s secondary schools and twice a year at its elementary schools, Zazo said – in addition to earthquake and fire drills that are also conducted at Alameda’s schools. The district also hosted a pair of “active shooter” drills at Lincoln Middle School in 2007 and Alameda High School in 2011.

The Lincoln drill was conducted with the participation of local police and firefighters, school district staff, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and the Red Cross, Morten said, while the larger Alameda High drill included more than 500 students.

The plan has been tested through smaller-scale gun incidents that included a shooting at Balboa High School in San Francisco when Morten was an officer there in the late 1990s and here at Wood Middle School in 2010 when a student who said he was being bullied brought a loaded semiautomatic pistol and other weapons to school, Morten and district officials said. The Wood incident was one of several instances of guns being brought to Alameda schools in early 2010, a district official said then.

Morten said that police and school district officials have discussed locks and other hardware and technological improvements that could make students safer, and that the discussion will likely continue.

“Any measures that you could take or a school district could take to possibly slow somebody down are always a good idea. But if you have somebody with the intent to get in, they’ll get in,” Morten said.

“It’s stuff that I’m sure is going to be ironed out or looked at again and again and again, not just because of Sandy Hook, but other incidents we’ve had in our recent history,” he said.

Alameda Education Association President Gray Harris said the teacher’s union has reopened the safety article of the teachers’ contract, which is under negotiation, but declined to discuss the details of the union’s proposal until a deal with administrators is reached.

“Safety should be a priority,” Harris said.

The renewed discussion over school safety comes after years of declining focus on making sure schools are protected, said Trump, the school safety expert.

“The day before Sandy Hook you couldn’t pay school boards and administrators and the community to talk about school safety. Today we’re in Columbine déjà vu,” Trump said of the 1999 Colorado high school shooting that prompted a drive to improve school security.

One major driver of the loosening emphasis on safety is money. Trump said budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels have led to the elimination of planning and training efforts, school counselors and school resource officers. He said school safety needs to be a regular budget line item for school districts and that funding needs to be maintained.

“Our federal officials and states do need to restore the cut grant programs for prevention, security and preparedness that have been eliminated over the years. At the same time, school boards and administrators have to stop viewing security and training and emergency preparedness as a grant-funded luxury,” he said.

But Trump also said that in the months leading up to the Connecticut shootings, some schools had regressed to a “pre-Columbine mentality” where doors were left open, staff was not trained to greet strangers on campus and crisis teams were only on paper. A reporter who visited three Island elementary schools this week to assess their security found easy entry to all three, and none of the adults the reporter encountered while wandering through each school acknowledged the reporter other than to say hello (see accompanying story).

The shootings come at a time when Zazo said the district is considering a shift toward a community school culture that welcomes the community at large on school campuses. She said that some safety enhancements put in place at other schools – like fences and metal detectors – made the school less safe.

“What we don’t want to do is to make our campus feel unwelcome and feel unsafe by making them look unsafe,” Zazo said.

Chief Business Officer Robert Shemwell said the district’s safety efforts include a focus on relationship building between students and adults on campus in order to get students to come forward with information they may have about weapons or other dangers on campus.

“If these people feel comfortable about approaching adults and about the environment they attend school in, and they feel valued there, they will come forward,” Shemwell said.

Related: Basic safety measures lacking at some Alameda schools


Jon Spangler's picture
Submitted by Jon Spangler on Mon, Jan 21, 2013

I'm very glad that APD has officers at the high schools. I suspect that we need more uniformed officers to be a constant and friendly presence on more of our campuses.

I'm also glad that we have mental health clinics and other social services (daycare, for instance) in the high schools. I would be surprised if those services were adequately funded and available to enough students so would support additional staffing there. Ditto for school counselors and other support staff who often help students who are at risk.

Maintaining open campuses is a vital principle in our schools, too. Having more volunteers available as "greeters" might be helpful to improve school security. I do not want armed guards at every gate--especially militia-type "volunteers." But friendly--and definitely unarmed--adult greeters could help screen and direct visitors as well as add eyeballs to each campus.

We already have a model for this in the existing lunchtime/noon recess volunteer program. One could easily recruit, screen, and schedule additional parents and community volunteers to help keep en eye on the campus and the kids during the entire school day. And local parks could use a similar program....