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School district risk managers across the country are reviewing their crisis policies and procedures following the barrage of school shootings that left at least eight people dead in the first two months of this academic year.
Even though most school crisis plans generally address school violence generated by students, more attention needs to be paid to the threat of outside intruders, safety experts say, because little can be done to stop a determined shooter once he or she has gained access to a school building.
The past two months have seen a rash of school violence, according to news reports. The violence began Aug. 24 when 27-year-old Christopher Williams went to an elementary school in Essex, Vt., looking for his ex-girlfriend, who was a teacher there. He couldn't find her and fatally shot one teacher and wounded another and he later shot himself twice in the head before being arrested.
A second incident occurred Sept. 27 when Duane Morrison, a 53-year-old drifter, took six girls hostage at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo. Mr. Morrison assaulted the girls and used them as human shields for several hours before fatally shooting one girl and killing himself.
Two days later, on Sept. 29, 15-year-old Eric Hainstock, a student at a school in rural Cazenovia, Wis., brought two guns to school and fatally shot the principal.
And just last week, on Oct. 2, Charles Roberts, a 32-year-old truck driver, entered a rural one-room schoolhouse in an Amish community near Lancaster, Pa. and shot 11 girls execution-style, killing five of them. He then shot and killed himself.
Because three of the four recent incidents involved outside intruders, risk managers are making sure their crisis and emergency response plans address that potential scenario.
"It's rather surprising to see this level of intruder crises," said Ron Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.
Of the more than 400 violent deaths that have occurred in the nation's schools since 1992--the year the center began keeping records--less than 5% involved attacks by individuals with no connection to either the students or the school, he said.
"Any time there's something like this, it's a time to take another look at your own plans," said Katharine Peeling, risk management specialist at Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Annapolis, Md., and president of the Public Risk & Insurance Management Assn. "Get details about what might have been prevented in that situation and learn from whatever weaknesses there were," and then make revisions to existing crisis plans as necessary.
Charles Murray, risk manager for Colorado Springs School District 11, said his department sent out a notice for all buildings to review their safety and security policies.
"We're continually reviewing, modifying, updating and reminding (district employees) of the emergency response plan," said Stephen Finley, director of risk management at Denver Public Schools.
Since 1998--when the last major rash of school shootings began--the Denver school district conducts an annual review of its safety and security plan and holds trainings just as frequently to "keep it in front of people as an issue that requires constant attention, constant reminding," Mr. Finley said.
The district was in the midst of its annual emergency response training when the Bailey incident occurred, he said.
While the intruder scenario is included in the training, such incidents are rare, so the focus has been on the more common incidents, such as a fire, a missing child or a disturbance in the neighborhood where police order a lockdown.
"Our plans are put in place to deal with these more common emergencies," Mr. Finley said.
"When you have an armed intruder in your school pointing guns at people, there's really no protocol that we can put in place at that point except to try to notify the office, call 911 and get as many kids out of the immediate area," he said. "Our response is to try to prevent the gunmen from seeing our schools as easy targets."
Colorado schools are all too familiar with school violence since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in suburban Littleton in which 12 students and a teacher were killed. In response to that incident, the state Legislature passed a measure requiring all of the schools in the state to have a crisis plan in the event of an attack, and the Bailey school was no exception.
"Platte Canyon had a very well put together plan," said Cheryle Mangels, executive director of the Colorado School Districts Self Insurance Pool, which provides insurance and risk control services to 80% of the schools in the state, including Platte Canyon High School, which does not have its own risk manager. The pool also helps its school district members develop, review and implement crisis plans.
"The plan was put into effect at approximately 11:40 on Wednesday morning. The school was locked down. I don't know the exact sequence, but I do know that at some point--whether it was while the kids were in lockdown in the school or during the period of evacuation--that all students and all faculty were accounted for. They know who, where, what and when. The lockdown worked. The evacuation worked. The plan worked. They knew who was in the classroom. And everyone was accounted for," she said.
Indeed, perhaps the best course of action any school can take is to control access, according to William Lassiter, manager for the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C.
But while most urban schools are aware of the potential risks associated with having an open campus, many rural and suburban schools are less guarded, according to Mr. Lassiter.
"A lot of these communities may have a policy in place where they say 'we're required to lock all our doors.' But, in the actual practice, if you walk around the school--and we do site assessments for schools--we'll find that some teacher's put a rock between the door and door jam so she doesn't have to use her key to get back in the door," Mr. Lassiter said.
"School districts, particularly in this day and age, need to do as much as they can to prepare their staff and faculty to be vigilant," Mr. Finley agreed.
"Awareness is vital," concurred Ms. Mangels who said she has been receiving numerous calls from school personnel asking what they can and should be doing in light of the recent incident at Platte Canyon High School. "You need to know who's in your schools."
But it is also important to train students to be watchful, Mr. Lassiter pointed out.
"In the Colorado situation, several students said they saw a suspicious person on campus but did not alert their teachers or administration. That really delayed the response by law enforcement," he said.
If someone spots a suspicious character on or near school property, Colorado Springs School District 11 will issue a security alert via e-mail to parents and, if necessary, lock down the campus, according to Elaine Naleski, director of communications and community relations.