Vickroy: Schools strive to be safer, stronger on the anniversary of Sandy Hook
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy December 13, 2013 5:32PM
Teachers escort students outside to where parents are waiting at Ridge Early Childhood Center in Oak Forest. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 16, 2014 6:35AM
Their names appear in the shape of a heart on a new memorial website. Charlotte, Benjamin, Olivia, Jack, Grace, Victoria, Daniel, Josephine, Arielle, Rachel, Jessica, Caroline, Anne Marie, Dawn, Ana, Madeleine, James, Catherine, Noah, Lauren, Mary, Emelie, Allison, Chase, Dylan, Jesse.
Even now, a year later, it is so horrible, so incomprehensible and still so heartbreaking.
The Sandy Hook School tragedy embodied so much that is wrong with American society — our obsession with guns and violence, our tendency to turn a blind eye to the mentally ill. There was another reminder of that in the Denver-area school shootings on Friday.
And yet Sandy Hook also emphasized what’s good about our society — teachers who would lay down their lives for their students, grief-stricken parents who somehow find the strength to encourage others to go forward and do good and that we Americans, as desensitized as we have become to mass shootings, can still be outraged by such horror.
Newtown, Conn., is half a country away. Yet on Dec. 14 last year, when gunman Adam Lanza shot his way into an elementary school and killed 20 first-graders and six teachers, it was as if the events were unfolding in our back yard.
“I can’t wrap my brain around someone doing that,” said Sue Weber, a kindergarten teacher at Ridge Early Childhood Center in Oak Forest. “I just don’t understand. That person couldn’t possibly have been looking at those children and seeing what the rest of us see because if he had he would not have been able to do that.”
What the rest of us see when we look at a first-grader is trust, innocence, honesty and a spirit of wonder that embraces everything that comes their way.
Weber has been a teacher since 1983, first in Kirby District 140 in Tinley Park and now in Forest Ridge District 142 in Oak Forest. She has seen school security go from a casual request that visitors check in at the office to requiring them to be buzzed in through locked doors and having their identification checked before they are allowed to walk, escorted, down the school halls.
“When I first started, you would never question anyone, now we err on the side of caution,” she said. “It’s sad, but it’s the way of the world.”
And that way is becoming more secure all the time.
Soon after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Orland District 135’s “parent trap” security system was studied by school districts across the area, District 135 Supt. Janet Stutz said. The system requires visitors to be buzzed through two locked doors before they can gain entry to the office, let alone the school.
“We already had a pretty secure vestibule,” Stutz said, adding that the district always is looking for ways to improve security.
Earlier this week, District 135 hired Jerry Hughes, Orland Park’s retired deputy police chief, for the newly created position of director of risk, management and safety. Hughes will oversee all safety issues and work as liaison between the schools and the police and fire departments.
“He’ll be in charge of rolling out our new Raptor System as well,” Stutz said, referring to requiring school visitors present a driver’s license that can be scanned to immediately reveal whether the person is a sex offender. “Schools need to be as safe as home. That way kids can be comfortable. When children are comfortable, they can learn.”
On July 1, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law the amended School Safety Drill Act, which requires school districts to work closely with local police in developing evacuation drills. The legislation spells out minimal requirements for evacuation, relocation and reunification of students with staff and parents should a tragedy occur.
According to the new law, there must be at least six drills — three school evacuation drills, one bus evacuation drill, one law enforcement drill and one severe weather and shelter-in-place drill. The law enforcement drill must include a shooting incident, and local law enforcement must participate in it.
Mike Kaufmann, Oak Lawn police investigations chief, said the department works closely with schools to organize those drills and oversee evacuation plans.
“Our patrol officers have to stop in randomly and unannounced at all of the schools in our area every day,” he said. “We’re sending the message that you never know when an officer will show up.”
Increased security, Kaufmann said, is just a reflection of the times. In addition to being present and having plans in place, police learned from the 1999 Columbine High School disaster not to wait for a SWAT team to arrive.
“We have rapid deployment because we’ve learned people can die during the time you’re waiting for help to arrive,” he said, adding that police and school officials must prepare for the unimaginable. “As adults we have a responsibility to look out for those who can’t protect themselves.”
Christy Pace, a veteran Palos Heights police officer who brings her anti-bullying program Core Matters into local schools, said we are seeing more violent outbursts across the country because there are more mentally ill people.
“There are no resources for them to get help,” she said.
But how do you protect yourself, let alone your children, from an unstable individual who likely can’t be reasoned with? Pace recommends that adults be alert and pay attention to the things children say.
“Children are very observant. They notice any little change before an adult will,” she said. “Make sure they feel comfortable telling you about those changes or things that are out of place.”
Pace said many youngsters today are desensitized to violence, thanks to video games and television programs that show people being shot and then bouncing back to life.
“(The Sandy Hook students) probably weren’t even afraid at first. They’re so innocent that they probably didn’t even grasp the reality of what was happening,” she said.
District 142 Supt. Courtney Orzel said the district has installed cameras, locking systems and swipe cards for employees since the Sandy Hook massacre.
“Safety has become our No. 1 concern. It has to be,” she said. “Parents are sending us their most prized possessions, and we need to protect them.”
Rachael Giacobbe has had four children go through District 142 schools. Her youngest daughter, Leah, is in kindergarten.
“They do a good job of keeping kids safe here,” said Giacobbe, who volunteers in the kindergarten classroom. “You have to be buzzed in and then sign in and then make sure your badge is visible. You can’t just wander the halls.”
At the forefront of school safety is the teacher, who must practice drills in preparation for a disaster and, in the case of Sandy Hook, became the last line of defense against the killer.
Five teachers and their principal lost their lives at Sandy Hook trying to protect their students. Mary Sherlac, Rachel D’Avino, Lauren Rousseau, Anne Marie Murphy and Victoria Soto, as well as Principal Dawn Hochsprung, were posthumously presented with the Citizen Service Before Self Honors Medal.
Stutz said such is the nature of a teacher.
“Teachers are special people,” she said. “When a teacher gets a new class in the fall, she gets a new family. And if you don’t think she becomes as attached to those kids as she does to her own children, come by on the last day of school when she has to say goodbye to them.”
“There have been all kinds of changes over the years in terms of security and rules and regulations,” she said. “But one thing that has not changed — the teachers. I would have done exactly what those Sandy Hook teachers did to protect their students. I would have done it on the first day I taught, and I’d do it now. And so would every other teacher I know.”
The families of the children killed at Sandy Hook have set up a memorial website: mysandyhook
family.org/. Visitors can click on a name to learn more about that particular victim.
Text on the site also answers a perpetual question that family members often struggle to address, “What can I do to help?”
“We ask that you consider performing an act of kindness or volunteering with a charitable organization in your local community,” it says. “In this way, we hope that some small measure of good may be returned to the world.”