There is no undoing the horror that was inflicted on the community of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, barely a month ago and how that tragedy shook each of us who have children or family spending their day inside a school. With each additional “school shooting”, one wonders how can it get any worse, but I believe most would agree that the murder of 20 children and 6 adults within the safe haven of their neighborhood elementary school is as horrible as it gets. It happened, though, and we must once again face the reality that our schools can become targets for those wishing to do harm.
Naturally, many of us question whether schools are doing enough to keep our children safe. The national political debate has centered on two main themes: gun control and mental health. While the politicians and special interest groups debate the issue, though, we parents and families must continue to send our children to school every day, without an immediate solution in sight.
This isn’t a post about symptoms that occur before a tragedy unfolds or how to prevent a tragedy. This is to push you to advocate for a plan to be in place in your child’s school should the unthinkable happen and for you to be sure you know what that plan is. Like a fire drill. Everyone needs to know what to do in case of a fire. This, sadly, is our new reality, and having a plan can mean the difference in surviving a massacre and being caught without a defense.
To be clear, the Sandy Hook tragedy was perpetrated by a lone shooter with a mission. The Director of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security (ADHS), Spencer Collier, in a School Superintendents of Alabama regional meeting last week, stated that the threat of the Lone Shooter is one of the Top Three Threats to homeland security here in Alabama. The threat is not only applicable to schools, but other “soft targets” where many innocent people can be accessed by a lone shooter wishing to harm or kill as many people as possible.
Which makes me wonder: can school officials, or anyone for that matter, keep our children safe from the lone shooter? Actions can be taken to mitigate the possibility a lone shooter can reach a school, but contingency plans must be in place should the unthinkable become a reality in a school in Alabama.
What are school officials doing to keep our children safe? As I recently discovered, a lot, actually. Especially given the continued financial struggle so many districts have faced since the recession. It is encouraging to see collaborative efforts between municipal governments and schools to shore up school security. Good to know that when help is truly needed, local governments will help our school community with additional funding.
As parents and families, we need to know, and have a right to ask our school officials, what the plan is. Not in detail, but generally, simply….do you have a viable plan for the unthinkable? The media have done an excellent job amassing reports from various districts (scroll down for a list of articles/resources), but what those reports reveal is the tremendous variance from district to district regarding what local school and law enforcement officials deem to be the right blend of security measures for our schools.
The measures taken currently include everything from employing School Resource Officers (SROs) to buzzers at main entrances to perimeter fences to sign-in kiosks to volunteers armed and trained to protect others. There’s ballistic film to reinforce glass and safety audits to reveal weaknesses and afford opportunities for improvement. Each of Alabama’s districts appears to have a different blend of security measures in place.
And then….then there’s the Virtual Alabama School Safety System (VAS3). [Found this on the internet. Not the same presentation from the meeting, but gives you the basic idea.] Pushing away thoughts of Big Brother, I couldn’t help but be impressed with this Google Earth application that allows first responders and others responsible for helping our children to have instant access to not only floor plans of our schools, but also information about where chemicals, fire extinguishers, classrooms, and other areas of the school are located in the floor plan.
Dr. Matthew Duke of the Auburn University-Montgomery’s Center for Government and Public Affairs led attendees through a presentation of all that VAS3 could reveal. School districts pay nothing to upload their floor plans. It’s completely free of charge. Access is heavily restricted, given only to those who have been given clearance by the superintendent of the local school system. Most of Alabama’s 1,500 schools have had their floor plans and pertinent information uploaded to VAS3, and the rest will be added soon. There is a July 19th deadline for all schools in Alabama to have their plans in to State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tommy Bice to ensure plans are readily available on VAS3.
I thought I was somewhat technology-savvy, but I didn’t realize this capability existed. Especially not through Google Earth (behind heavy layers of security, remember). VAS3 even gives first responders access to security cameras if they are installed and enabled. Imagine having a set of eyes inside the building, we were told, and how that could help increase the number of survivors.
I couldn’t decide whether I was horrified or thrilled, digesting not only that this technology exists but that the need for it exists.
After that tour, Collier shared the reality of the threat of the Lone Shooter, one of the Top Three Threats to Alabama’s homeland security, as previously mentioned. He stated that the lone shooter, when mentally ill or ideologically motivated, is extremely dangerous. To add to the concern, only 27% of Alabama’s police are trained in Active Shooter situations, but Collier hopes to increase that number to 100% in the near future.
Collier emphasized the need for those arriving on the scene to be able to have instant access to physical information about the school and how that could impact that ability to end the threat of the active shooter as soon as possible after the shooting began. Thus, the VAS3 system is indispensable for first responders.
Collier then showed us the “Run, Hide, Fight” video, prepared not for the K-12 school system, but for workplace shootings to give citizens a plan of action should an active shooter invade your space. Caution: it is chilling. Collier stated that a curriculum goes along with the video in order to teach citizens how to respond to the active shooter.
Collier stated that the video was not produced by the ADHS, but rather borrowed from another state and edited for Alabama. He reiterated that it was not developed for the school environment, and offered the possibility of creating such a video for school employees.
While reminding the superintendents in attendance that he was not there to tell them how to craft their own school district safety plan, Collier offered the full resources of the ADHS to help superintendents develop a viable school safety plan for the children in their charge.
Which brings me to this: does your school district have a viable school safety plan? Lockdown drills? Code Red drills? Emergency notification for parents? Relationships with first responders? Security cameras? School floor plans uploaded to the VAS3? Secure entrances? Evacuation procedures? School resource officers? Timely access to law enforcement personnel? How have officials communicated this to you?
Do your local law enforcement personnel have regular discussions with school personnel, not just at the central office/administrative level, but with teachers and others employed by the school, to ensure information regarding threats and weaknesses in security are revealed to those who can help?
Do you know what your school and school district’s school safety plan means for you and your child? Does your school’s safety plan need updating? Does your school system need additional funding? Can your community help with that?
Do you care enough to ask?
Start the conversation. Start with your child’s teacher, if you’re unsure of whom to ask about the school safety plan. Ask your school’s parent-teacher organization to set up a meeting where that information can be presented. Don’t take a standard, “oh, don’t worry about that, we’ve got it handled” for a response. Press for an answer. You don’t have to know all of the details, but you should at least know what would happen in the event this should threaten your school community.
A minimum level of security should be in place, and it’s up to each school community to determine what an acceptable minimum level of security is for their children. Be a part of that conversation. Know your options.
Here’s what State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice had to say to a committee of Alabama’s elected officials during a January 9th hearing on school safety. It is important to understand how our leaders are shaping this conversation so that we, the school community, can add our voices.
Please share your thoughts here or on the facebook page.
Compilation of Articles Regarding What’s Being Said About School Safety
This is not an exhaustive list. It is here to give you a sampling of what school officials across Alabama are doing to address concerns about school safety after the horrible tragedy in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
- Discussions Spread on School Safety – January 16, 2013
- Local Law, School Officials Talk Safety – January 16, 2013
- Stats Indicate 6 Acts of Violence Occurred Daily at Alabama Schools in 2011 – January 16, 2013
- Guns in School: Bill Would Allow Educators to Train As Reserve Law Enforcement Officers – January 15, 2013
- School Safety Officer As Important to Student Well-Being as School Nurse, Morgan Officials Say – January 15, 2013
- North Alabama Schools Reassess Security – January 11, 2013
- Arab City Schools Commits $66,000 to Put Armed Police Officer in Every City School – January 11, 2013
- Guns in School: Educators with Law Enforcement and Military Experience Could Become ‘First Defenders’ – January 10, 2013
- Limestone County Planning to Add Officers to Elementary Schools, Athens Looking at Security Options – January 10, 2013
- Security Expert: Proper School Safety Needs to Focus on All Threats – January 10, 2013
- Birmingham-Area School Chiefs Grapple with School Safety After Newtown Massacre – January 9, 2013
- Alabama Leaders Chime In on School Safety – January 9, 2013
- Hoover Elementary Schools to Keep Police Through End of This School Year – January 8, 2013
- New Resource Officer Begins at Jacksonville High School – January 7, 2013
- Jefferson County Educators Learn Preparation Is Key in Mass Shootings – January 2, 2013
- Birmingham-Area Parents, Students Cope with Going Back to School After Mass Shooting – December 17, 2012
- Proposed Bill Would Allow School Administrators, Teachers to Carry Guns – December 27, 2012
[Image source: http://www.teachingwill.com/2010/10/open-doors-ms-ryane.html.]