One year later: Security a priority locally after Newtown

School security in Washington County looks different today than on Dec. 14, 2012.

That was the day a mentally disturbed 20-year-old man forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and murdered 20 first-graders and six women with a semiautomatic rifle before taking his own life with a handgun.

School shootings had, of course, happened before, shaking and getting the attention of the nation.

But Sandy Hook was different.

“There wasn’t that direct connection with a school,” Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said. “This was a mentally ill person that decided the school was an easy target.”

Shootings like the ones in 2012 at Chardon High School, 2007 at Virginia Tech and 1999 at Colombine High School in Colorado were perpetrated by students. And the victims in those cases included high school and college students.

The age of the victims and the manner in which they were killed made Sandy Hook even more shocking, said New Matamoras Elementary Principal Bill Wotring.

“Most criminals – even our worst, hardened criminals – don’t do that,” he said.

It wasn’t as if Sandy Hook didn’t have security measures in place, said Mike Elliott, secondary director at the Washington County Career Center, noting the shooter, Adam Lanza, shot his way through a plate glass window to enter the school.

“They had a very physically safe school … and he still got in,” Elliott said.

Fort Frye Local Superintendent Stephanie Starcher said she hopes Sandy Hook will continue to be different in another way – that the focus on school safety it brought about won’t fade away.

“A few months pass and people tend to back away from putting that at the forefront,” she said. “We need to have it as a conversation among our administrative team and our teaching staff.”

That conversation continues in the Marietta City school district, where calls for armed school personnel in the weeks after the Sandy Hook shootings have faded but the district’s safety committee is exploring another approach – allowing teachers to carry pepper spray.

“But we will have some strict restrictions on that,” said Don Atkins, a board of education member who sits on that committee.

Those restrictions, he said, would include keeping the pepper spray on the teacher’s person at all times and out of reach of students.

Physical changes

Security was a topic of conversation for all local schools before the Newtown shootings. Some of the measures that have been put in place in the year since did not come about solely as a response to the shootings, but many school officials have said that incident created a new sense of urgency.

Fort Frye, Frontier, Warren and Wolf Creek installed key card readers on the entrances to their schools to allow all doors to remain locked. Belpre is looking into security systems for its schools’ main entrances, and Frontier is seeking quotes for a system at Lawrence Elementary, which is older than the other buildings.

Marietta City Schools’ elementaries and middle school already had those locks and buzz-in entryways. The high school did as well, but they were not engaged because students had to move between the main building, the auditorium and gymnasium and the district administration building during the course of their regular day.

That prompted the board of education to move forward with a nearly $600,000 project to enclose the walkway to the auditorium and gym and add classroom space so students would no longer have to take classes in the administration building. Exterior construction is complete, and the interior work is expected to be finished over Christmas break.

Law enforcement

“I believe Sandy Hook probably got all schools to cooperate with their local law enforcement agencies at a faster pace,” Wolf Creek Local Schools Superintendent Bob Caldwell said.

Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks said that prior to the Sandy Hook shooting, deputies only visited schools on an as-needed basis. Now, deputies who have a school in the zone they’re patrolling stop there regularly.

“The officers stop by at least once a day and sometimes twice, and they also rotate the times that they stop,” Mincks said. “We wanted more presence. … And we wanted our presence to be unpredictable.”

Belpre provided keys to all of its buildings to city police. The Warren Local school district made office space available to deputies at Warren High School, so they can stop in and work on reports if they’re in the area, rather than heading back to Marietta.

“I am so pleased with the way that we work with our law enforcement (and first responders) in Washington County,” said Warren Superintendent Kyle Newton, who joined the district in August. “They are at the top of their games and are easy to deal with.”

Having officers around more frequently may have seemed unusual to students at first, but Wotring said that has changed for students at New Matamoras.

“It’s one of those things that after a few times, it’s nothing,” he said. “It’s just part of the routine.”

And that has its own benefits.

“(We) want the kids to be comfortable and know that the officers are truly here to protect them,” Wotring said.

Schools are also working to share information more easily with law enforcement. Multiple districts are looking into state grants for radio equipment that will tie in with the Multi-Agency Radio Communication System (MARCS) used by the sheriff’s office to allow direct contact in the event of an emergency. The career center is putting the finishing touches on a system, developed with the help of computer graphics students, that makes all of its emergency plans as well as maps of the facility available to law enforcement online.

“Even before they get here, they can sign in, look at the plans,” said Jerry Bradford, chief information officer at the career center.

The sheriff’s office has conducted active shooter drills at most high schools in the county, and Chief Deputy Mark Warden offers training based on the A.L.I.C.E. program to elementary staffers as well.

A.L.I.C.E. stands for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate” and emphasizes assessing one’s options, looking for routes to escape and, as a last resort, fighting back, rather than the basic lockdown approach.

“It’s … better preparing our students campus-wide and knowing how to react depending on where that emergency is occurring,” Elliott said.

Schools were moving in that direction even before Sandy Hook, with Marietta Police conducting training sessions and drills at Marietta High School last year.

“We were pretty well set on the path to do what we need to do,” Atkins said.

Armed personnel?

One idea discussed a great deal in the weeks after the Sandy Hook shootings was arming school personnel, but that hasn’t gained much traction among local school officials.

“Our board of education is not in favor of arming anyone on our campus unless they would be a school resource officer,” Dunn said. “There’s too much that can go wrong with that. It would change the culture, the atmosphere in school.”

Dunn said Belpre has applied for grant funds to pay a school resource officer, and Newton said he would be open to that at Warren as well. Atkins said Marietta’s school board looked into the idea of arming personnel but said there seemed to be too much liability for the district and the teachers that would be involved.