Fortresslike schools hope to protect after Sandy Hook

Changes in one California elementary school illustrate measures implemented in aftermath of Newtown massacre

Schools across the country have enhanced security measures in the wake of the Newtown shooting.
Omar Ricardo Aquije/AP

GLENDALE, Calif. — Visitors to Cerritos Elementary School have only one way to get in: a single main door.

As they enter, they’re faced with a counter shielded with glass. If allowed to go farther, they’re buzzed in. If they don’t belong, any of the staff in the main office can hit a silent buzzer to alert police. Lock blocks that can instantly seal access from the outside have been installed on each of the 30 classroom doors. Lockdown drills are now as run-of-the-mill as those for earthquakes and fires. Parents can no longer escort their kindergartners into the school.

No tragedy has had more impact on school security than the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Conn., where 26 died, including 20 children.

In the year since, finding ways to increase safety — from installing bulletproof boards in classrooms to arming teachers in rural areas — has transformed the school experience, particularly in elementary schools.

Until recently, the focus was largely on keeping students in check: screening for guns and other weapons. And high schools were the recipients of the tightest measures, from scanners to security cameras.

But now primary schools are becoming fortresses too. In the Glendale Unified School District, lock mechanisms were already in high schools, but are now being installed in every elementary school. Each will have a single public point of entry, walls or doors and glass windows or counters in the main office, a silent alarm button, a closed-circuit TV system accessible to local law enforcement and electronic door locks.

“This used to be an open campus,” said Hilda Gharibian, school secretary at Cerritos Elementary, who’s in the front line of defense in the main office. “Now we do not have kids waiting in the front for their parents anymore.”

They wait in the health office, inside the secured area.

The Sandy Hook massacre “stayed on everyone’s radar screens beyond three weeks,” said Stephanie Papas, school health education consultant with the California Department of Education. “School violence can happen anywhere and at any time.”

Each school will have a single public point of entry, walls or doors and glass windows or counters in the main office, a silent alarm button, closed-circuit TV accessible to local law enforcement and electronic door locks.

Since the Connecticut shooting last December, at least 33 states have introduced some type of legislation to allow teachers or school employees to carry guns. But of 80 bills introduced, only seven passed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

South Dakota’s “school sentinels” law authorizes armed school employees, security contractors or volunteer guards, said Lauren Heintz, research analyst at the NCSL.

Texas created a “school marshal” program that lets employees carry guns under certain circumstances if they’re licensed. Similar laws passed in Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee.

“We did see a big jump in school safety and security bills introduced in the states,” Heintz said. But most — more than 500 — have nothing to do with arming school personnel.

“There’s a wide variance in what each state is doing,” she said — from gun safety classes for students and a review of safety plans, to retrofitting school buildings.

Tennessee now requires “intruder drills” in schools.

For many states and school districts, reacting to the Newtown tragedy has not gone far beyond raising awareness and passing resolutions, perhaps because they don’t have the resources to install costly security devices.

Glendale was fortunate that voters approved a bond measure allowing the district to allocate $3 million to beef up school security.

The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program in the U.S. Department of Justice awarded $46 million for the hiring of 370 school resource officers — who are law enforcement employees — nationwide.

“The main thing is that school personnel and school administrators have a better awareness of school security,” said Kevin Quinn, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “They need to take a step back and look at their emergency management plans and figure out if there are any lapses … It’s just made people more aware.”

Bulletproof boards, backpacks

Some school systems are scared enough that they find money to invest in bulletproof backpacks and safe rooms, in addition to bulletproof boards and walls.

“Some of the buzz since the Newtown shootings, albeit from a relatively small percent of overall parents and schools, has been on ridiculous extremes,” said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland consulting firm. “People are looking for the ‘wow’ but not thinking about the ‘how’ in terms of the inability and unreasonableness of implementing these and other ideas.”

Critics say that bulletproof backpacks, for example, would have to be worn like turtle shells at all times to protect kids and would do little to shield their heads or chests.

Maybe so, but Hardwire LLC in Pocomoke, Md., has gotten orders for its bulletproof whiteboards and clipboards that can double as shields. The company, which develops armor for the military and law enforcement, now produces the boards in a variety of colors for schools.

The University of Maryland Eastern Shore purchased 200 for use in academic buildings by professors, said Hardwire spokeswoman Emily Heinauer. “We have sold thousands across the country to individual teachers, staff and faculty,” she added.

The boards are used by K-12 districts in Maryland, North Dakota and Minnesota, she said.

“These all meet the emotional security needs, but in reality will do little — and may even create a false sense of unrealistic security,” said Trump, who, as the father of two young children, calls his job a mission. “Many of the security and preparedness measures schools really need to do to improve security are less flashy and fad-driven, and sometimes more discreet or even invisible.”

Reconfiguring school design of entranceways or putting restroom sinks in common areas in the outer sections of bathrooms can help control everything from unauthorized access to bullying.

Many schools are resurrecting plans that were put in place after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting rampage in Colorado but were not always pursued.

Trump said he’s happy to see schools paying attention to security and preparedness, but he wishes “school boards and superintendents would sustain that level of interest and activities when there is not a crisis in the forefront of everyone’s minds.”

The demand for educators to be trained to recognize signs of mental illness is also on the rise, said Papas, the education consultant, pointing to the fact that the Sandy Hook investigation concluded that the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had significant emotional issues. A new California law now requires the Department of Education to increase resources in the areas of psychological trauma and gun violence.

However, even experts admit it is hard to make any guarantees should the worst come to the worst. “Sandy Hook was a very secure school that had security measures in place,” said Quinn.

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