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Tragic Lessons

Deadly school violence causes districts to take stock and revamp security.

SCHOOL VIOLENCE IS TAKING its toll. So far in the 2006-2007 school year, American school staff and students have suffered 28 school-related violent deaths and 53 nonfatal shooting incidents, according to the National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.

Freelance writer Kevin Butler recently spoke with four school superintendents whose districts were among those that had recent deadly incidents. These incidents are every parent's, teacher's and superintendent's worst nightmare. James Walpole, superintendent of the Platte Canyon School District 1 in Bailey, Colo., Acting Superintendent Tom Andres of the Weston School District in Cazenovia, Wis., Superintendent Jim Fitzpatrick of the Essex Town School District in Vermont and Superintendent Roseann Nyiri of the Springfield Township School District in Montgomery County, Pa., share the steps they have taken in the aftermath to improve school security and they offer advice for other district leaders.

Reaching Out to Police

At the Platte Canyon district, a violent incident last year, which left one student dead, showed the value of districts' establishing close relationships with law enforcement and undergoing security training, according to Walpole.

Last September, a 53-year-old man who entered Platte Canyon High School, armed with a gun and falsely claiming to have a bomb, took six female students hostage. Four were released, and one was rescued by a SWAT team, but not before the man fatally shot 16-year-old hostage Emily Keyes as she tried to flee. He then turned the gun on himself.

Just a month before the incident, the sheriff 's department had trained all teachers and most support staff what to do in an armed gunman scenario. The school underwent a simulation to ensure teachers knew about lockdown procedures and communication tactics, Walpole says. "Teachers knew what to expect in terms of armed SWAT team members going through the building," says Walpole, who is in his ninth year as superintendent. Teachers knew to keep pupils in classrooms away from windows and use a special symbol, which Walpole did not want to reveal for security reasons, to signal to officers in the building that their rooms were secure.

Still, districts need to go beyond just training when partnering with law enforcement, Walpole says. "While training is important, perhaps the most important aspect is that a positive, ongoing relationship be established with law enforcement in advance," he says. Sheriff s' officers regularly meet in one of the school's conference rooms, and many of the officers coach school sports teams, conduct driver's education and help with student activities.

When law enforcement officers get more involved, they become more familiar with the school and its staff -knowledge that would prove valuable in the event of a security crisis, he says. In Walpole's 1,300- student district, the officers at the time of the incident "were very familiar with the school layout and could respond quickly to the right location when told that the intruder was in room 206," he says.

Walpole believes it is important that districts carefully study security issues and receive outside expert opinion. The district has convened a school safety advisory committee-involving parents, businesspersons, law enforcement officers, teachers, administrators and students- that will hear from a variety of safety experts offering ideas to improve, he says. The panel was expected to issue recommendations in April.

"They could respond quickly to the right location when told the intruder was in room 206."-Jim Walpole, superintendent, Platte Canyon School District 1, Bailey, Colo.

At the district's invitation, a unit of the Colorado State Patrol conducted a "vulnerability study," focusing on fires, tornadoes, and other safety and security situations. The unit's report, which was kept confidential for security reasons, was presented to administrators and the Board of Education in March, Walpole says.

Walpole advises other districts to get recommendations from security experts. "The information is valuable, and I do recommend that vulnerability studies like this one be considered by other districts," he adds.

Like other superintendents that District Administration contacted for the story, the question of access control to the school loomed large after the incident. Platte Canyon is installing a security surveillance system donated by a Denver businessman-worth about $361,000- so that campuses can monitor entrances, exits and hallways, Walpole says. The system also will sound alarms and blink control lights if someone uses an unauthorized entrance.

And not just technological strategies improve access control. The high school principal and parents initiated a program in which parents greet visitors, log them in and provide visitor passes, which Walpole says has had a positive effect. "These volunteers provide the extra 'eyes and ears' to help us know who is coming into the building and help to better track who is in the school," Walpole adds. "The program also helps fill a need that many parents have to be doing something to help."

Although Walpole believes that implementing the "vulnerability study" recommendations will reduce the chances of an intruder reaching the school, districts should remember that the most likely occurrences of school violence come from "upset" or "disturbed" students. So reporting potential internal threats is critical to maintaining safety, he says. The district now participates in Colorado's Safe to Tell program, which encourages students to report information about potentially dangerous situations or crimes via an anonymous, toll-free statewide hotline, Walpole says.

Hardening the Target

Access and communications were two areas that the Weston School District in Wisconsin focused on in the wake of a tragedy last September 29.

Shortly after 8 a.m., a 15-year-old male student walked into Weston School armed with a shotgun and handgun. A custodian successfully wrested the shotgun from him, but the student had used the handgun to shoot Principal John Klang, who later died from his wounds. The guns came from the family gun cabinet, Andres says.

The incident revealed the importance of regulating access to the building-or what Andres calls "hardening the target." "We can no longer afford to have people casually walk into a school building in which we are responsible for kids," he says. To harden the targets, the school has dramatically altered its access points. Now students are admitted in the morning from 7:45 a.m. to 8 a.m. At 8 a.m., the doors are locked and persons seeking access must ring a buzzer. The entrance is equipped with an intercom and video camera, which a school secretary can look at using a video monitor. To help screen visitors, the receptionist each day receives a list of people who have appointments at the school, such as building-and-ground crews and salespeople. The receptionist also can ask visitors to wait at the entrance until a person at the school who knows them can come to the office and identify them, using the monitor and intercom, Andres says.

Teachers use access cards to gain admittance. The 355-student district paid for the $38,000 door system through a grant, donations and the district budget.

The physical aspects of safety, such as building access, are important, but as in any school, the school climate is another vital consideration for security-specifically breaking the "code of silence" among many students, some who may know about looming trouble. That "involves making sure staff are available for kids," says Andres, who was not superintendent at the time of his district's tragic incident. "Does every student have at least one adult they can go to?"

"They were in lockdown for two hours not knowing what was going on."-Tom Andres, acting superintendent, Weston School District, Cazenovia, Wis.

The Weston district hired an armed school resource officer after the incident to fill that role-to give students a person they will feel comfortable talking with about potential security situations. The students get to know the officer, who walks the school perimeter on a regular basis, through his classroom visits, presence during lunchtime and break times, and his presentations on bullying and harassment, Andres says.

Improving communication between kids and staff members is important, but so is ensuring that school staff can communicate with one another during security crises, Andres adds. The Weston school continued to be in lockdown after the incident because it was a crime scene. "It would have been good to be able to communicate in some places we couldn't communicate," Andres says. "They were just in lockdown for the two hours not really knowing what was going on."

To improve communication, the district bought 16 two-way radios, adding to the six they originally had, and expanded the radio coverage to include all areas of the property. Also, there is now a phone in every classroom that teachers can use to call the main office, local numbers or 911, depending on the situation. In emergencies, teachers are to call 911 and the main office, Andres says.

Moving Ahead Thoughtfully

Last August at the end of a summer in service day, a 27-year-old man entered Essex Elementary School in Vermont and shot two teachers, killing one. The man was looking for his ex-girlfriend, also a teacher, who was in another part of the building at the time of the incident.

The Essex Town School District staff had previously undergone security training, including lockdown procedures. Practice drills are vital. "According to people on the scene, [they] saved lives," Fitzpatrick says. The best defense for districts is an aware staff that is on the lookout for potential security situations. "Make sure that your safety plans and crisis plans are up-to-date, and that people are aware of them," he advises.

Since the incident, staff members of the 1,270-student district have become even more alert and aware of what's going on at the school sites. Safety committees of staff and administrators are reviewing possible methods to upgrade security and are expected to hear from outside experts this summer, Fitzpatrick says.

And Fitzpatrick adds that it's important for a district recovering from a security incident to carefully weigh options and study what really works before making decisions- and not rush into anything. "We are trying to be thoughtful about it," he says. "We want to make the facts of the situation drive the decisions, not fear."

Coordination with fire and police departments also is essential for any school security plan. "In the event of a crisis," he adds, "whether it's a floor or fire or whatever, those different agencies have to work together."

Community Outreach

Last December, a 16-year-old male student entered Springfield Township High School in Oreland, Pa., with a shotgun concealed in a duff el bag. After firing into a ceiling, he turned the gun on himself.

Prior to the incident, the district had undergone training for lockdowns and already developed a close relationship with police-two important steps, says Nyiri, district superintendent. "I think probably the most important thing that helped us through this is the fact that we had been practicing lockdowns," she says.

It's important in the wake of security incidents that districts reach out to the community, she adds. The district has set up a safety committee to develop ideas for improvements. A subcommittee of that body is reviewing ways of engaging the community in efforts to increase safety, such as by making parents more aware of gun safety, drug and alcohol issues, and parenting issues. The district also is making parents and children aware of available resources inside and outside the school district, such as counseling and therapy.

"We don't know if we could have prevented the incident, but we are certain that communication and education within the community will be very helpful in the future," Nyiri says.

Unarmed security officers are very visible throughout the building.-Roseann Nyiri, superintendent, Springfi eld Township School District, Oreland, Pa.

Like the other districts, the Springfield Township district also is turning to outside experts and tightening access points. The approximately 2,100-student district has hired a consultant to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment, and the district has reduced student entrances to the school from three to two since the incident. The school already had security cameras prior to the incident, Nyiri says.

Springfield Township now is conducting random backpack checks and has required students to keep backpacks, which could conceal weapons, in lockers once they arrive on campus. And prior to the incident, the school had already employed two unarmed security officers. "They are very visible throughout the building," Nyiri says. "They get to know the children."

The district is keeping in touch with the community about the safety committee's activities. Still, even if the district's extra preparations had been in place during the incident, Nyiri isn't sure whether they would have made a difference.

"I don't know, because I believe that this is an anomaly," Nyiri says. "We are not a school district that has a lot of fighting or problems. It's a very nice, small, close-knit community, and I really don't know whether we could have prevented it or not."

Other districts will likely face the same what-if questions as incidents of school violence continue. But at the very least, they can be better prepared.

Kevin Butler is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.