As nation reels in wake of school shooting, local safety plans told
BY STEVE METSCH AND SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org December 14, 2012 3:26PM
Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. where authorities say a gunman opened fire, leaving 27 people dead, including 20 children, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Updated: January 17, 2013 6:32AM
Despite toughened security measures, safety precautions and drills, it’s impossible to prevent a tragedy like the one that occurred Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., local school officials said.
At least 27 people at the school were believed killed, including 20 children, in one of the worst school shootings in the nation’s history.
School leaders said they don’t believe gun-toting teachers and metal detectors are the answer to preventing such violence.
“If someone is bound and determined to do something like that, it is impossible to prevent it,” said Union School District 81 Supt. Tim Baldermann, a former Chicago Ridge police chief. “All you can do is try to contain it as quickly as possible.”
The Connecticut shooting is believed to have been domestic-related. Reports said the gunman targeted his mother, a teacher at the school. She was among those killed.
Baldermann said parents who believe there is a potential safety issue at home have to make the schools aware of that.
“I cannot imagine what goes through someone’s mind to take innocent lives like that,” he said.
Schools today have secured entrances, require visitors to be buzzed in, or check identification.
“We do drills with police and teachers, and we practice,” Homewood School District 153 spokeswoman Sandy Peck said. “We do whatever the police tell us to do.”
At the same time, school officials said, they want their schools to be inviting and welcoming for parents and community members.
“It’s a dilemma,” Peck said.
By Friday afternoon, Homer 33C Supt. Mike Morrow had joined with other superintendents in the Lockport-Homer area to post messages on their websites or send notes home reassuring parents that they “take every step possible to ensure the safety of your children.”
“You try to limit the risk, but you never really know,” Morrow said.
Initiatives at his school include secured building entrances, visitor sign-in/sign-out procedures, and planning and practicing emergency lockdown/evacuation drills with local police, he said.
“We join the rest of the nation in grieving for the students who were lost to senseless violence,” Morrow said.
At Orland School District 135, a crisis response plan is reviewed and updated annually, with district administrators as well as police and fire departments weighing in, district spokeswoman Tracy Marc said.
For example, during a review of the plan last year, concerns were raised over the configuration of entry doors at the district’s 10 schools. Entrances since have been altered so that visitors have to be buzzed in through two sets of doors, Marc said.
Early next year, the district is rolling out new equipment at its schools that will be used to scan the barcode on the back of visitors’ driver’s licenses to check to see whether that person has a criminal history, she said. While it wouldn’t provide a comprehensive criminal background check, the system would, for instance, alert school officials if the visitor is a registered sex offender, Marc said. A visitor could be barred entry to the school based on the background check, she said.
More security measures
All five schools in Evergreen Park School District 124 have security measures in place, Supt. Robert Machak said.
Visitors have to be buzzed in at the front entrance and check in at the school office. The same procedure is in place at the district office next to Central Junior High. Visitors must show identification once they reach the office, he said.
But even then, stopping a heinous act like what happened Friday could prove challenging.
“There are some very sick people out there. Somebody who is bent on some destructive act is going to try to do it,” Machak said.
“Part of the frustration is the security measures we have in place are all designed to keep out someone who is not supposed to be in the building. I understand (the shooter) was the son of a teacher, so if you have a relative who is known to the school or a parent known to the school, you’d let them in,” Machak said.
Security policies are reviewed every year, he said.
“Schools are required by law to conduct at least one lockdown event with the police involved,” he said.
The school board last week received bids for the installation of security cameras at each school, which will cost about $100,000 in all, Machak said.
Teachers are taught to lock their classroom doors if an armed person is inside a school.
Asked if metal detectors, in use at some Chicago public high schools, may be the norm at suburban elementary schools one day, Machak said the topic “has not been discussed” since he took over in July.
“It’s hard to say it’s a bad idea if it keeps our children and teachers safer,” he said. “A metal detector would let us know if someone has a weapon, but would it be a deterrent?”
Friday’s massacre was never far from his thoughts.
“I’ve been sick to my stomach all day and it’s just so sad. The statistics tell us that school is still the safest place for a child to be, but on days like this, it’s hard to feel that way,” Machak said.
Rich Township High School District 227 Supt. Donna Leak, in a prepared statement, said the incident is “a deeply upsetting topic.”
She assured parents that the district — which includes Rich East, Rich South and Rich Central high schools — takes safety “extremely seriously” and outlined annual precautions that are taken, such as practicing lockdown procedures, and training staff on how to deal with violent situations.
The schools have police officers provide security, and each school has video security cameras, she said.
Flags were lowered Friday to half-staff at district schools.
‘Pray for peace’
The Rev. Rodney Reinhart, pastor of St. Joseph/St. Aidan Church in Blue Island and St. Clement’s in Harvey, called on the religious community to unite against guns and violence — an issue he plans to address in Sunday’s sermon.
“We have to go beyond that and say ‘no’ to the incredibly violent and destructive multiround guns and the terrible availability of destructive weapons,” he said. “We have to speak out against this addiction to violence and guns that has touched families so tragically.”
“It’s a terrible, terrible thing,” said the Rev. Peggy McClanahan, of Pilgrim Faith United Church of Christ in Oak Lawn. “People are very touched and shattered by this.”
On the church’s Facebook page, she asked for prayers for all those “killed, injured and traumatized” in this “tragic shooting.”
“We hold them, their loved ones and the whole community in God’s love and pray for peace on Earth,” she wrote.
Helping the healing
A child psychologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn said it’s important to be honest with children if they ask questions about the incident. Dr. Gabrielle Roberts said parents should ask children what they know about Friday.
“Start off by asking them what they know and what their understanding is,” Roberts said. “Be honest with them, first of all. Be straightforward with kids and be honest. And also be mindful about what they can handle and understand. Encourage them to ask questions. Although that may be uncomfortable for us, you want to do your best to answer them honestly.”
And if you don’t know the answer, tell them so.
“It’s OK to say you don’t know. It’s OK to say, ‘Wow, I have trouble thinking about that, too,’ ” she said.
Younger children may wonder whether this can happen at their school, she said.
“It’s important to tell them that the guy who did this can’t hurt anybody anywhere any more, and that it’s not likely to happen at their school,” Roberts said.
Each child will respond differently to the news of the shootings, she said.
Some of the children who were in the Connecticut school, she said, may face years of therapy. Others may not need it.
Children with a personal history of dealing with violence or personal trauma may have more difficulty in coping with the shootings.
“This can bring up a lot of other scary things for them. Some may experience nightmares,” she said.
One of the best things adults and parents can do is simply listen to children, Roberts said.
“It’s our responsibility to listen, to make sure they know that no topic is off the table. If they need to talk about this, it’s OK to talk about it,” she said. “I think it’s important as parents to recognize how difficult it can be to talk about this with your kids and to remember to be honest and straightforward. If they want to talk about it but you’re unable to give them your full attention because you are cooking dinner or driving, for example, tell them you do want to talk and do that later.”
Contributing: Mike Nolan