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ARC: SURGE IN PUBLIC VIOLENCE

Newtown school shooting puts the focus on safety, security

U.S. school districts review their security in wake of shootings

Newton School Shooting
Photo by AP PHOTO The U.S. flag was flown at half staff in Newtown, Conn., and other U.S. locations for the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

While the mourning continues for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., school district officials across the country are reviewing their own safety and security policies with the hope of preventing similar tragedies.

Existing security measures vary depending on the type of school district — with some large, urban districts even having their own police forces — but there are common elements that districts should consider to protect students and reduce the risks of school violence, experts say.

“We're hearing from school districts that are trying to gather information, mainly from local law enforcement and emergency management,” as they review policies and make any needed revisions or updates, said Ron Allen, executive director of the Athens, Ga.-based Public School Risk Institute.

Scott B. Clark, risk and benefits officer of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said he didn't anticipate changes in the district's security polices, but said the issue was being discussed.

“This is a reminder that we need to review our processes,” he said.

The school district already has extensive security policies in place, and various events throughout the area frequently test those policies. “We kind of go through a drill almost on a daily basis,” Mr. Clark said. “We're in a constant mode of testing that methodology, unfortunately.”

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“We do end up having, on a daily basis, lockdown on our campuses” because of criminal activities taking place in the vicinity of a school. “We have many levels of security, including our own police force,” he said.

The situation is similar at Detroit Public Schools, said Douglas M. Gniewek, executive director of the district's office of risk management.

“We are taking the time to review our existing policies, but the Detroit Public Schools had some pretty stringent safety policies in place for some time,” Mr. Gniewek said. Every school has a security guard, and it's necessary to pass through a metal detector to enter any school, he said.

“We have our own police force, a very sophisticated police force,” Mr. Gniewek said, adding that all the system's schools are constantly monitored from the district police force's new headquarters. “It's a huge room that has monitors that cover every school in the district,” he said.

Connie Telfeyan, risk/safety manager of Omaha Public Schools, said the Nebraska district also is reviewing its safety and security policies. The front doors of school buildings typically are unlocked, but someone is posted there who requires visitors to sign in.

“We will continue that policy,” Ms. Telfeyan said. “The public is directed to the front door, where they have to sign in and out.”

“School districts right now are looking at how do you strike that balance between keeping campuses safe without turning them into an armed camp, and how do you establish a level of reason about what is done,” said Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

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At Sandy Hook Elementary, where the Dec. 14 shootings took place, “They did a lot of things right,” Mr. Stephens said, including perimeter security, a door buzzer system, and an emergency response plan that had been tested and practiced. “It wasn't a matter of just hoping things worked out all right. They worked their plan,” he said.

“It's unrealistic to expect schools to have a perfect zero tolerance of any violence,” Mr. Stephens said. “I don't know of any school in the country that's ready for an attack with assault-style weapons.”

Acknowledging that “no form of security is absolute,” Kevin Wilkes, vice president and security practice leader at Willis North America Inc. in Pittsburgh, said he encourages clients to “stop managing security and start managing the risk.”

Access control is among the elements that should be common to all school districts' security plans, Mr. Wilkes said. Others include installation of proper surveillance devices and direct alarms that allow appropriate school officials to summon local law enforcement.

In looking to secure schools, “It really all boils down, in my opinion, to three critical areas,” Mr. Wilkes said: planning, prevention and protection.

Planning includes updating emergency action plans, lockdowns and other emergency procedures, he said. School officials also should develop partnerships in advance of an incident with local law enforcement and emergency services providers.

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In terms of prevention, schools should test preparedness and response plans at least annually, Mr. Wilkes said. Those tests should involve local law enforcement and emergency services partners because the opportunity for them to become familiar with facilities in advance will allow them to be more effective if a crisis occurs. Prevention also should include routine inspections of physical security devices such as locks and investigating any reports of threats or unusual behavior.

Protection builds on planning and prevention efforts, Mr. Wilkes said. “You really want to remember your response training and put that to use,” he said.

After an event such as the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, there's often pressure in communities to demonstrate some sort of visible school security improvement, Mr. Stephens said.

“I think schools, as a result of these shootings, more and more they're going to be looking at the placement of academy-trained officers on campus,” he said.

Mr. Wilkes encouraged school districts considering placing such officers in schools to do due diligence and make risk-based decisions, adding that if they decide to take such an approach, they should make sure officers are properly trained and that the district has policies regarding the use of force and the types of weapons officers are allowed to carry on school grounds.

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