Local school officials talk safety in light of Newtown shooting

Published 11:40 am Monday, December 17, 2012

Austin superintendent says safety plan is ever-changing

On Friday, a gunman killed 27 people and himself, including 20 first-graders, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., shocking the U.S. and spurring school safety, gun control, and mental health discussions across the nation.

Austin Public Schools administrators are among those talking, as district principals met with teachers Monday morning to discuss the tragedy and make sure faculty identifies and helps students who may be emotionally affected by the Newtown shooting.

The Newtown shootings will serve as a reminder of the district’s security policies, an evolving initiative within Austin.

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“We’re constantly reviewing our plan,” said Superintendent David Krenz. “It’s not something that sits on a shelf collecting dust.”

Austin’s security committee meets monthly to discuss school and district safety, as well as to plan upcoming security improvements throughout Austin. The committee was the driving force behind recent security upgrades at all district sites, notably the upgraded entrances at each elementary school last year. District officials installed security cameras, a buzzer system and more locking mechanisms in the summer of 2011 so visitors have to check in with the administrative office before stepping foot inside a school.

The increased security at each elementary school was done in response to industry-wide best practices, according to Buildings and Grounds Director Mat Miller, who is also on the district’s security committee.

“By doing those buzzers and intercoms, it gives you that first line of defense,” Miller said.

The work is part of a larger initiative to have visitors always pass through a school’s administrative office throughout the district, according to Krenz. Austin High School reconfigured its main entrance this summer so visitors check in with the administrative office before entering the school, and Neveln Elementary’s administrative office will move closer to its main entrance over the next summer.

“We’re retrofitting as we move forward and remodel, that anybody coming into the building during the school day has to come through the office,” Krenz said.

Aside from Neveln’s office switch, the district will also address functional issues in Austin schools, like making sure the PA systems at each school reach each room inside the building, including newly created classrooms which were used as storage spaces and closets only a few years ago, according to Miller. The district already practices lockdowns, fire drills and emergency preparedness drills at each building at least five times a year, per state law.

Austin’s security practices are common, however as school districts regulary update safety policies. Southand and L/O Superintendent Steve Sallee said each district updates crisis committee information every two to three years, and have added things like security cameras and extra security measures at each building entrance throughout both districts. Lyle Superintendent/Principal Joe Guanella said his district deals with safety measures through weekly leadership meetings. In Grand Meadow and Glenville/Emmons, district officials pick certain drills and situations to practice aside from the mandated ones. Grand Meadow and G/E Superintendent Jerry Reshetar said students are scheduled to practice a fire drill this spring where they are evacuated from the school, onto buses and taken to nearby shelter in case of a fire in winter temperatures, where students can’t be outside for long periods of time.

The Newtown shooting once again brings to light the limitations of current security protocols, however. Sandy Hook Elementary School went into lockdown as gunman Adam Lanza began to shoot students and staff, which ultimately protected many students. But a large building with many people does face security concerns.

“Schools, and even any large venue with lots of people, are pretty vulnerable,” Reshetar said.

Yet tragedies like the Newtown shooting always affects the national discussion on school safety, and U.S. educators are expected to further evolve safety plans to meet new concerns while attempting to prevent further tragedies.

“It’ll be hard for the district not to respond to [the Newtown shooting], just because what happened was such a significant tragedy,” Miller said. “There’s no doubt it will affect the decisions we make moving forward.”