Schools Respond to Shooting With Security Questions

On Friday, Dec. 14, an armed gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Conn. and killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders.

Since then, faculty and staff at area schools have taken a hard look at their own plans of response should such violence erupt in their own hallways.

Teachers and other staff at Washington Elementary School met Thursday with Valley City Police Chief Fred Thompson to discuss the school’s current emergency plan and how to improve it.

The current guideline of moving into classrooms and not opening doors in case of an armed intruder was debunked by Thompson, who instructed staff to run if they can, hide or barricade themselves in a room or closet if they can’t run, and to fight as a last resort.

Besides addressing physical security issues, Thompson discussed his concerns with having an “open” campus, a campus with unlocked doors that is accessible to anyone who approaches, be it parents, substitute staff, or the “bad guys.”

The group discussed the plausibility of locking all but one of the outside doors, most likely the entrance closest to the office, where everyone would be required to enter.

Parents picking up children would be required to check into the office and their children would be brought to them.

Such a measure could inconvenience parents, said Washington Elementary School principal Wayne Denault, but it’s still better than putting children’s safety at risk.

The group also considered a “buzzer system,” which would allow all the doors to be locked during school hours and anyone wanting in the building would need to be identified before being allowed entrance. Also, the use of identification tags, which would make it easier to identify outsiders or unauthorized people was discussed.

According to Steve Larson, Superintendent of Litchvile Marion Schools, all but one door at each of the district’s two schools are already kept locked during the school day.

Litchville-Marion has taken preliminary steps to make its buildings more secure.The Barnes County and LaMoure County Sheriff’s Departments have agreed to be as visible as possible in the schools (a common violence prevention-tool throughout area schools) and the sheriff’s departments now have keys to each of the district’s buildings (the elementary school is in Barnes County while the high school is in LaMoure County). Also the district, which uses video surveillance in both buildings, is considering increasing its video surveillance coverage.

The Valley City Junior/Senior Hight School Building has 52 surveillance cameras throughout the building, and has applied for grant money to purchase and install 14 more, said high school principal Kristi Brandt. She acknowledged that violence against students and staff is just as likely to happen from within as from outside the school.

All but one door each in the junior/senior high building is kept locked, said Brandt. But it’s difficult to impress upon students that they shouldn’t prop the doors open for easy access.

“We’re looking at all of our policies,” said Brandt. “This incident certainly left us with a heightened awareness.”

Though the High School staff, nor any other Valley City Public Schools staff besides those at Washington Elementary School, have had formal meetings with law enforcement, Brandt has encouraged her staff to list their concerns for a meeting later on. Eventually, all of the Valley City Public Schools will have such meetings.

Brandt also asked Thompson if he would be willing to meet with individual teachers, in their classrooms, to hear their concerns and make safety recommendations.

During the meeting at Washington, Thompson emphasized that many acts of school violence may have been prevented, if someone had reacted to the warning signs.

“In the vast majority of these active shooter scenarios, someone knew. Somebody heard a threat, somebody heard an expression from the “bad guy” that they were thinking about this. Typically, they don’t tell anybody.”

Any time a child, regardless of age, starts talking about harming others, law enforcement needs to get involved, Thompson told the Washington staff.

“I’d rather respond to 1,000 false threats than miss one real threat.” Thompson said later.