Sunday, February 17, 2013
Schools may never be totally secure
Despite efforts to make the nation's schoolchildren safe, experts say the barriers will always be porous.
WASHINGTON — At Park Hill High School in Kansas City, Mo., some of the most heightened security measures in the area didn't prevent a student from bringing a .22-caliber handgun to school last month.
The school recently added more security cameras, guards and locks on all external doors. The Park Hill School District already had required middle and high school students to wear identification badges around their necks for the past few years.
They're not just an adornment. In some of the middle schools, students with a temporary badge are escorted from class to class; in the high schools, they take their lunch in detention.
Yet on Jan. 31, a sophomore was arrested at the end of the school day after another student tipped off administrators that he'd been carrying a loaded weapon.
"I was surprised that the individual had the firearm all day, but I wasn't surprised the other individual turned him in," said Paxton DiBlasi, a Park Hill senior.
Schools around the country have implemented an array of security measures in the wake of recent gun-related violence on campus, including the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December that left 20 children and six adults dead.
Many local school systems are finding that it falls on their shoulders to find out what meets the needs of their communities. They have learned that even the most advanced technology is no replacement for having trained and prepared students and staff.
"When you walk into these schools, you're finding crisis teams have not actually been formalized and have not been meeting on a regular basis, school crisis plans have not been updated for a number of years, and all of a sudden after Sandy Hook, people are scrambling," said Ken Trump, a national school security consultant.
The approaches can vary, from hiring full-time armed guards to teaching students to throw iPads at an attacker. That technique is one part of a security preparation program in use at some schools around the country, known as ALICE, an acronym for "alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate."
Congress intends to weigh in, too. The House Education and the Workforce Committee will hold a hearing later this month on how schools prepare for threats of violence.
In Southwest Virginia, school officials have said they take a proactive approach to safety.
In January, Trump came to Roanoke schools to evaluate security protocols. At a news conference at Patrick Henry High School, he spoke positively of the district's safeguards and said he planned to report his findings to the school system within two months.
Roanoke schools Superintendent Rita Bishop said the review was not a response to any recent acts of violence. Procedure requires officials to review the school system's safety plan each year, but Bishop said Roanoke officials are constantly re-evaluating.
Trump also worked with Roanoke schools in 2009, when the system received a $630,000 federal grant for school safety. The schools spent $295,000 at the time to hire his firm, National School Safety and Security Services. The cost of his more recent visit was about $40,000.
Botetourt County schools instituted a buzzer system in January, admitting visitors only after they've been identified. School officials in Roanoke County have also expressed plans to expand use of buzzers at schools that don't have them.
Franklin County school officials said in January that they were reviewing procedures and identifying concerns.
Many schools across the nation have installed locks and redesigned their front offices to enhance security on a budget. The number of students ages 12 to 18 who reported that their schools locked their entrance doors swelled from 38 percent to 64 percent between 1999 and 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In California, the sprawling Oak Park Unified School District considered going beyond locks, taking out an estimate on installing fences around every school before deciding that the nearly $2 million project was not the way to go.
Instead, Superintendent Tony Knight will make a series of recommendations to the school board this month. He said these will include outfitting custodians and other personnel in neon yellow vests, painting the schools' identification numbers on their roofs, and enticing the Ventura County Sheriff's Department to make more frequent stops at the schools by providing office space and free lunches.
"It's the concept of realizing we can't do everything, but doing everything that we can," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. "Even with the best of strategies, there's not a foolproof formula that will prevent any future shooting of this nature from taking place. But we can do some reasonable things that reflect appropriate judgments."
Lisa Thomas, associate director in educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers, noted how schools quickly respond with detailed plans when bad weather is on the horizon.
"One would think we'd be as deliberate and systematic in school response to either weather or man-made events," she said. "We haven't seen that level of practice take place."
But recently, one of Thomas' colleagues in Connecticut said that her first-grader came home from a response drill knowing three designated hiding places in his school.
Other districts may have to let their crisis plans collect dust because of time and money constraints.
"Superintendents and school boards are going to have to come to grips with the fact that they're going to have to also own some of the costs of school safety in their operating budgets," Trump said, "and not view school safety as a grant-funded luxury."
A large number of schools have few changes to make in the coming months — and that's a good sign, officials said. For example, Paxton DiBlasi's mother, Barbara DiBlasi, knows exactly how she would react if a gunman was reported at Plaza Middle School in Kansas City, where she is a media center specialist.
DiBlasi was trained for such an incident before Adam Lanza stepped inside Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire. He subsequently shot himself.
"The first thing I would do is lock the doors, secure the children; I would do everything I could do to keep those children safe," DiBlasi said. "I know I'm prepared. I don't feel anxious to send my children to school because I know the other educators in the district are prepared as well."
The Roanoke Times contributed to this report.