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Tragedy puts new focus on school security

Dec. 28, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Lavalette Elementary teacher Allie Brewer watched the aftermath at Sandy Hook while helplessly thinking the same thing could happen at her school in northern Wayne County.

She considered the wide access visitors have upon being buzzed in by school personnel, lackadaisical attitudes that lead some to prop open other doors, and the lack of a phone system that makes Lavalette Elementary solely dependent upon the school's intercom.

Those things and others concern the third-grade teacher, prompting her and many educators to consider potential weaknesses and develop solutions.

"They're at the center of what I do every day," she said of her students. "We're here to be a role model for these kids and to keep them safe. They're relying on us, and parents are relying on us."

Wayne County Schools Interim Superintendent Mike Ferguson, much like counterparts in area school districts, acknowledged such concerns are shared by many teachers, parents and families, all who now find themselves shaken by the Dec. 14 mass shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Reports indicate the gunman fired his way into the school, breaking through a locking mechanism similar to controlled-access entrances at other campuses in the Tri-State. The ease of his entry has caused some to ponder ideas once thought extreme for a school environment, such as bulletproof glass and armed guards at entrances.

Neither Ferguson nor officials in Cabell or Putnam counties latched onto either those ideas, however they said security protocols and operations remain under continuous review in their respective counties. They said events at Sandy Hook reveal new circumstances to consider.

"If somebody is deranged enough to do what that gentleman did, I don't believe he could have been stopped by any (existing) procedures," Ferguson said of his school system. "As a parent, grandparent and educator it's scary, but we still have to go on and have school and do the best we can to protect our children."

Cabell County Superintendent William Smith, like his counterparts, praised his county's existing security efforts and warned against any knee-jerk decision based on emotion. He cited misinformation in the days after Sandy Hook as a reason why educators need to give the fact-finding process time.

"Right now emotions are very high," he said. "I don't know what else we should be doing until we really sit down as a system and talk about what happened and could we actually prevent it, what would have to be in place to do that and is it in the best interest of children to do it that way."

An armed presence

The National Rifle Association gave its voice Friday to the idea of having an armed presence at every school in the nation. The gun-rights lobby called for a police officer to be posted at every school but also appointed a former congressman to lead an NRA program tasked with developing a model security plan for schools that relies on armed volunteers.

Such an armed presence is not the norm locally or nationwide with only about a third of schools having armed guards. For instance, Cabell County has armed police officers assigned to Huntington and Cabell Midland high schools. Wayne County has one sheriff's deputy rotating among its three high schools.

A nationwide study, complied in 2007-08 by the National Center for Education Statistics, found 28,300 schools reporting an armed security presence at their campus. That represents 34 percent of schools nationwide.

But, like the Tri-State, most of those guards were assigned to middle and high schools, according to the NCES study. Only 20 percent of the nation's elementary schools reported an armed presence.

Cabell Superintendent Smith has reservations about increasing the number of guards. He said posting one officer at every school would come at significant cost and raises the question of how many officers will be needed to guard a campus' multiple entry points.

Ferguson also mentioned an increased risk of accidents.

Beyond those issues rest Smith's philosophical concern that armed guards will lead to increased anxiety and negatively impact a student's ability to learn. He said metal bars, bulletproof glass and metal detectors could create a similar atmosphere.

"I think our society will suffer as a result," he said. "If you create that atmosphere from an early age, where they're constantly in fear of being attacked ... it changes the mentality of a society."

Cabell County Sheriff Tom McComas estimates placing one deputy at one school easily could cost $100,000 a year. That would include the deputy's salary, benefits package, uniform, necessary weapons and a cruiser.

The Harrold, Texas, school system recognized the cost and turned to an alternative. Its board members voted to allow teachers with concealed weapons permits to carry their weapons on campus. Similar ideas are now being floated across the country.

Smith and Ferguson, both skeptical of any additional guns on campus, said trained law enforcement would be a better option.

"A principal is not a combat soldier," Smith said alluding to the stress involved with deciding to kill a human being.

Gary Sigman, coordinator of security and safety for Putnam County, offered no opinion in regard to having an armed presence. His school system recently lost grant funding to keep a police officer at its largest high schools, however law enforcement officers still live in mobile homes sitting next to Winfield High and Eastbrook Elementary.

Sigman said eliminating officers at the two high schools has had little impact. However, he joined Smith in saying those resource officers do more than security as they also assist in discipline and other matters.

Controlled access and in-classroom phones

Sandy Hook proved that locked doors will not necessarily stop a determined intruder.

But that locked-door approach, which was just recently implemented by the Connecticut school, is the primary security plan for schools across the country and in the Tri-State. The recent tragedy already has officials looking for addition protection strategies.

Sigman said locked doors represent one layer of protection of Putnam County's security protocol, and in-classroom phones provide a second. The phones allow any teacher in the building quick access to the school's emergency intercom. Also, a 911 call from any campus phone instantaneously transmits an alert to Sigman and the county's superintendent.

"We try to prevent it all," he said. "What we can't prevent, we try to alert people who are deeper into the building. We try to alert everybody we can before the next step is taken."

"Indicators of School Crime and Safety," a 2011 report published by the NCES, found the number of campuses with locked or monitored doors during the school day climbed from 74.6 percent in 1999-00 to 91.7 percent 2009-10. Those with phones in most classrooms grew from 44.6 percent in 1999-00 to 74 percent in 2009-10.

Cabell, Putnam and Wayne counties all feature locked campuses during the school day. That means visitors must buzz in to notify school personnel, who check the visitor on surveillance before allowing that person entry.

Newer schools in each county are moving toward a double-layered entry. The first buzz will limit a visitor access to the office. That forces the visitor to sign in before a second buzz grants him or her wider access to the building.

The double-layered entry is already in practice at Central City Elementary and Milton Middle. Older schools will be retrofitted in Cabell County, Smith said.

Mark Manchin, the executive director of the West Virginia School Building Authority, said earlier this week security will continue to be a top priority in designing the new schools the agency helps fund. But the agency also has given out millions of dollars to help add safety measures to older schools.

One idea being considered after Sandy Hook is a mesh netting attached to glass doors. Manchin said it will keep a gunman outside even if he or she shoots out the glass. That could provide enough time for emergency crews to arrive.

In regards to in-classroom communications, Cabell County depends upon a mix of telephones, cell phones and intercom buttons.

Reporter Bill Rosenberger of The Herald-Dispatch and The Associated Press contributed to this report.