Tragic Lessons: Deadly School Violence Causes Districts to Take Stock and Revamp Security

By Butler, Kevin | District Administration, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Tragic Lessons: Deadly School Violence Causes Districts to Take Stock and Revamp Security


Butler, Kevin, District Administration


SCHOOL VIOLENCE IS TAKING its toll. So far in the 2006-2007 school year, American school staff and students have suffered 28 school-related violent deaths and 53 nonfatal shooting incidents, according to the National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.

Freelance writer Kevin Butler recently spoke with four school superintendents whose districts were among those that had recent deadly incidents. These incidents are every parent's, teacher's and superintendent's worst nightmare. James Walpole, superintendent of the Platte Canyon School District 1 in Bailey, Colo., Acting Superintendent Tom Andres of the Weston School District in Cazenovia, Wis., Superintendent Jim Fitzpatrick of the Essex Town School District in Vermont and Superintendent Roseann Nyiri of the Springfield Township School District in Montgomery County, Pa., share the steps they have taken in the aftermath to improve school security and they offer advice for other district leaders.

Reaching Out to Police

At the Platte Canyon district, a violent incident last year, which left one student dead, showed the value of districts' establishing close relationships with law enforcement and undergoing security training, according to Walpole.

Last September, a 53-year-old man who entered Platte Canyon High School, armed with a gun and falsely claiming to have a bomb, took six female students hostage. Four were released, and one was rescued by a SWAT team, but not before the man fatally shot 16-year-old hostage Emily Keyes as she tried to flee. He then turned the gun on himself.

Just a month before the incident, the sheriff's department had trained all teachers and most support staff what to do in an armed gunman scenario. The school underwent a simulation to ensure teachers knew about lockdown procedures and communication tactics, Walpole says. "Teachers knew what to expect in terms of armed SWAT team members going through the building," says Walpole, who is in his ninth year as superintendent. Teachers knew to keep pupils in classrooms away from windows and use a special symbol, which Walpole did not want to reveal for security reasons, to signal to officers in the building that their rooms were secure.

Still, districts need to go beyond just training when partnering with law enforcement, Walpole says. "While training is important, perhaps the most important aspect is that a positive, ongoing relationship be established with law enforcement in advance," he says. Sheriffs' officers regularly meet in one of the school's conference rooms, and many of the officers coach school sports teams, conduct driver's education and help with student activities.

When law enforcement officers get more involved, they become more familiar with the school and its staff--knowledge that would prove valuable in the event of a security crisis, he says. In Walpole's 1,300-student district, the officers at the time of the incident "were very familiar with the school layout and could respond quickly to the right location when told that the intruder was in room 206," he says.

Walpole believes it is important that districts carefully study security issues and receive outside expert opinion. The district has convened a school safety advisory committee--involving parents, businesspersons, law enforcement officers, teachers, administrators and students--that will hear from a variety of safety experts offering ideas to improve, he says. The panel was expected to issue recommendations in April.

At the district's invitation, a unit of the Colorado State Patrol conducted a "vulnerability study," focusing on fires, tornadoes, and other safety and security situations. The unit's report, which was kept confidential for security reasons, was presented to administrators and the Board of Education in March, Walpole says.

Walpole advises other districts to get recommendations from security experts. "The information is valuable, and I do recommend that vulnerability studies like this one be considered by other districts," he adds. …

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