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School safety: learning from what Sandy Hook did right

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, experts advocate fundamentals such as controlling access to the school, having a crisis plan in place, and retaining a strong support staff for prevention.

By Staff writer / December 17, 2012

Manuel Moreno walks his daughter Jady, age 6, to the Morris Street Elementary School, Monday, Dec. 17, in Danbury, Conn. Teachers and parents across the country were wrestling with how best to quell children's fears about returning to school for the first time since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Mary Altaffer/AP

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Boulder, Colo.

Police are increasing their presence at elementary and high schools across the United States this week.

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Districts from Little Rock, Ark.; to Wooster, Ohio; to Tucson, Ariz., are reviewing security measures, planning future “lockdown” drills, and sending home reassuring letters to parents.

One small district in western Pennsylvania, whose board had previously voted to eventually arm police in schools, got a court order over the weekend to arm an officer in each of its schools by Monday. The superintendent says that he expects an armed officer to be in each of its 14 schools from now on.

But even as superintendents and principals around the country scramble to update safety plans and investigate new options, they also face a grim reality: Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., did pretty much everything right.

The school had a new buzzer and camera system, installed this year, that visitors were required to go through to be admitted. It had lockdown procedures and safety drills, as well as a good relationship with local first responders.

And yet a gunman was still able to shoot his way into the school and kill 26 people, 20 of them children, before turning his gun on himself.

“This is simply a reminder of how vulnerable schools continue to be,” says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. “Despite some of our best efforts at making schools safe, when you’re dealing with a committed assailant it’s extremely difficult to stop [the attack].”

That said, Mr. Stephens and others agree that there’s still a lot schools can do to be safer – many of them the procedures Sandy Hook already had in place. And, they note, it’s possible that the loss of life at Sandy Hook would have been even worse had some of those procedures not been in place.

“Instead of asking, ‘Did nothing work?,’ another way of looking at it is, ‘Did some things work that could have prevented an even greater loss of life?’ ” says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.

Even the brief delay that resulted when the gunman had to shoot his way into the school rather than simply walking in may have helped, he says. And there are reports of teachers who instituted lockdown procedures, got kids out of hallways, and ran to try to stop the shooter, all of which may have saved some lives. And the response by law enforcement was very rapid.

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