For school security, ‘This is a game-changer’
BY DAN MIHALOPOULOS Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org December 15, 2012 1:56AM
In this photo provided by the Newtown Bee, a police officer leads two women and a child from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks) MANDATORY CREDIT: NEWTOWN BEE, SHANNON HICKS
Updated: January 17, 2013 6:42AM
The tender age of many victims in Friday’s massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut prompted some experts to predict the tragedy would change the nation’s views on school security more radically than previous shooting sprees.
“This is another wake-up call but it’s another level,” said Stephen Sroka, a professor at the medical school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “This is a game-changer. This is different. With high school kids, you know, it’s not right, it’s sad.
But little kids? What used to be unthinkable is now doable. We’ve crossed a line.”
The tragedy in Connecticut will convince communities across the country to cut other spending in favor of funding greater security measures, including adding armed guards at schools, said Peter Pochowski, the former executive director of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers.
Many states, including Illinois and Wisconsin, already have laws requiring schools to hold drills to prepare for attacks and to have crisis plans in place. But Pochowski says that won’t be considered enough.
“It’s a terrible, terrible thing to say you need armed officers in our elementary schools but it’s looking more and more like that’s what’s going to have to happen,” said Pochowski, who now leads the Wisconsin School Safety Coordinators Association.
“This is the first time we’ve had this in elementary schools,” he added. “There will be a lot of soul searching in light of this.”
An Illinois law passed in 2005 “strongly encouraged” but did not require lockdown drills. That law was amended to make those exercises mandatory in 2009, said state Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus.
The School Safety Drill Act now dictates that “schools must conduct a law enforcement drill to address incidents, including . . . lock-downs, shootings, bomb threats or hazardous materials” at least once every school year.
The state also requires schools to annually review and update their crisis plans.
Pochowski said teachers should be trained to shut their classroom doors and gather their students along what is called “the friendly wall,” immediately on the other side of a hallway where a shooter would likely be walking. That way, he said, the assailant would not be able to see who is in a room simply by looking in from the hallway.
“Generally, these shooters walk around and see where doors are open and they will bypass a door and keep going if they can’t see straight in” at potential targets, he said.
Other experts warn that it would be impossibly expensive and unpalatable to post gun-toting sentries at every school.
“If we start going down that path, though it’s inviting, then we would have armed guards everywhere,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who is the managing director of the Chicago office for Kroll Advisory Solutions. “You can make the same argument for having armed officers in movie theaters or malls. There are other things schools can implement before we have to get there.”
Cramer said many schools are too permissive about who they allow into their buildings.
“Most schools have that first level of safety but the problem is there is no second level,” he said. “This will obviously heighten the sense that staff authorized to buzz people in must be 100 percent sure the people they are letting in should be there. We can’t let people in schools and then ask them what their business is. Once you let them through the door, your options become limited.”
John LaSorsa, a former Secret Service agent and security consultant based in North Carolina, blamed the plague of shooting sprees on the decades-long national trend away from institutionalizing most mentally ill people.
“They must be in a controlled environment with no access to the outside world,” LaSorsa said. “We just don’t know when and where we will be subjected to some lunatic trying to kill us.”
Sroka agreed that massacres like the carnage in Connecticut can best be avoided by taking a more aggressive approach to dealing with mental health issues. But he predicted more such tragedies as the nation’s economic problems worsen mental-health woes and lead to further cuts in funding for counseling services.
“We don’t need more metal detectors,” Sroka said. “We need more mental health detectors.”