Keeping students safe: Schools look at security in wake of Florida shooting

Don Alwes, instructor with the National Tactical Officers Association, goes over past mass shooting incidents with police officers and school administrators from the Ledyard Public Schools during a classroom session Aug. 25, 2016, at Ledyard High School. Schools are re-examining their safety protocols and resources after last month's deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Don Alwes, instructor with the National Tactical Officers Association, goes over past mass shooting incidents with police officers and school administrators from the Ledyard Public Schools during a classroom session Aug. 25, 2016, at Ledyard High School. Schools are re-examining their safety protocols and resources after last month's deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

As the debate rages nationally over how the country should respond to its latest school mass shooting, local districts are examining their safety measures and brainstorming ways to improve security.

For schools in southeastern Connecticut, the school shooting in Florida last month is not so much a wakeup call. Rather, it's another reminder of the importance of an ongoing re-examination of school security and safety procedures since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

“There’s always a way to improve safety and security,” Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said. “Part of it is making sure routines in place are followed, and then review them and make improvements.”

Administrators also are taking another look at their school buildings and some are considering installing more complex buzzed-entry systems and shatterproof glass.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High ex-student Nikolas Cruz has admitted to killing 17 people at the Parkland, Fla., school on Feb. 14 with a legally purchased AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

An ongoing analysis by the Washington Post found that, since the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999, “more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus.”

On Dec. 24, 2012, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Since then, school administrators and local law enforcement in southeastern Connecticut have made a concerted effort to improve school security and better prepare students for just about any situation including those with an active shooter.

State law requires that boards of education establish a school safety committee, conduct a security and vulnerability assessment for each school under its jurisdiction every two years, and ultimately create a school safety and security plan to be submitted to the state every year, among other things.

A recent investigation by the Hartford Courant found that many school districts statewide are violating security laws by failing to submit some security information to the state.

State law also mandates that schools practice crisis response drills at least once every three months in consultation with local law enforcement. These can be fire drills, lockdown drills or other emergency drills.

Several schools in southeastern Connecticut are conducting 10 or more of these types of drills a year to ensure students are better prepared to respond in the event of a real emergency.

School officials try to vary the situations in the drills. Groton Superintendent Michael Graner said that along with classrooms, the district also practices lockdown drills in the cafeteria.

“You have protocols for virtually anything that could happen at any time,” he said.

Lockdowns: How they work

Without getting too specific, school officials generally described lockdown processes.

Typically, a lockdown begins with the announcement of a code word to indicate the severity of the situation. Once that happens, students are instructed to find a secure location, preferably out of sight and with a locked door. From there they are expected to stay silent until the threat is neutralized.

If a student is locked out of a room when a lockdown begins, they are instructed to find the nearest place to secure themselves.

The way lockdowns are communicated varies based on the age of the students.

“We try to speak to kids about the purpose of them,” Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser said. “Obviously, the way you present that to a high schooler is different than to a kindergartener.”

By using age-appropriate language, schools try to avoid causing the children undue stress. For instance, some schools tell kids that an animal, such as a deer, is loose in the hallway, so the students need to be quiet while a police officer tries to help the animal.

When it comes to high school-age kids, schools also have conversations about shootings like the one at Stoneman Douglas.

“We want to make sure we’re providing an environment where students can talk about tragedy and process that in an emotionally supportive way,” Ledyard Superintendent Jay Hartling said.

Hartling added that the district found students in lower grade levels had far less awareness about the Stoneman Douglas shooting, so instead educators just took it as an opportunity in a more general way to reinforce safety and the importance of students being aware of their surroundings.

Several school officials also stressed the importance of monitoring social media activity — something many schools already do in collaboration with local law enforcement officials.

However, school officials also said it's important that parents and students are diligent about reporting things they see or hear.

"I really believe the days of 'no snitch' are over," Fitch High School Principal Joseph Arcarese said.

Cameras, buzzed entries

Although administrators preferred not to offer too many details on the security of their schools, there are several common safety measures among them.

Schools generally are locked during the day and require that visitors get buzzed in at entryways to enter buildings. These entryways also are outfitted with cameras, allowing staff to see visitors before allowing them access to the building.

Over the past several years many schools in the region made significant security upgrades, paid for in some cases by state and federal grants made available in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting.

For instance, Norwich Free Academy received a $1 million grant several years ago to create three secured and staffed entrance points on campus, add “extensive video surveillance” and equip buildings with locks and security technology, according to a letter to parents, faculty and staff from Head of School David Klein.

Waterford Superintendent Tom Giard said his district recently received a $5,000 state grant that, when combined with about $10,000 in local funds, will pay for updated locksets on doors in one of the town's schools. Giard declined to name the school for security reasons, but said the project helped ensure "security procedures are consistent with other schools."

"One thing police talk about is, if it were an actual situation, consistency is important," Giard said.

Other schools in the region have made similar security upgrades, and some are considering installing things such as shatterproof glass and multiple remote panic buttons. Some administrators said that enhancing buzz-in entryways to include double doors and a holding area could prove beneficial, as well.

Several schools also have security or campus resource officers. But even at schools lacking those, many administrators spoke of the tight relationship with local law enforcement officials, with officers coming by school campuses almost daily.

Superintendents prefer trained law enforcement in schools rather than arming teachers, as some — including President Donald Trump — have proposed.

"They didn't get into this racket to carry a pistol," Peter Nero, North Stonington superintendent, said of teachers. "I think it would be a serious detriment to the profession."

In the days following the Stoneman Douglas shooting, many school administrators quickly connected with public safety officials to take another look at the various schools’ safety plans.

One superintendent, who asked that the district not be identified, said he has met with state police and plans to meet with local fire department officials to discuss the schools’ actions when the fire alarm sounds, in light of the Florida shooting.

It was reported that shortly after the shooting began at Stoneman Douglas, a fire alarm went off prior to the lockdown, bringing students and teachers out into the hallways. It is unclear whether the gunman intentionally tripped the alarm, or smoke from the gun set it off.

Neviaser, the superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme, said that while his district has its own safety code, he suggests a national school safety code be developed to ensure all schools are meeting security standards, similar to how schools now comply with fire code requirements.

“We put tons and tons of effort into fire safety,” he said. “That same effort we as a nation need to put into school safety.”

Day Staff Writers Kimberly Drelich, Erica Moser, Benjamin Kail, Claire Bessette and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

c.clark@theday.com

Members of the Stonington Police Department practice a live shooter incident at West Vine Street Elementary School in Pawcatuck on June 25, 2013. Schools are re-examining their safety protocols and resources after last month's deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Members of the Stonington Police Department practice a live shooter incident at West Vine Street Elementary School in Pawcatuck on June 25, 2013. Schools are re-examining their safety protocols and resources after last month's deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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