Students made the annual trek back to school Tuesday after Christmas break, but school safety continues to be a topic for debate nearly one month after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
The conversation in the Cody School District is centered on preparedness, education and communication.
Superintendent Bryan Monteith said the district is always looking at ways to improve safety, like the addition of hand-held radios for communication and switching building access from keys to cards or files that can be scanned, but the most important piece is making sure students and staff understand the procedures.
“All we can do is practice, talk about it, review procedures and policies, and then we know the most important thing we have to do after the fact is deal with it,” Monteith said.
The schools go into immediate lockdown if an unknown person enters the building, and police are able to access school cameras remotely. All Cody schools are equipped with security cameras.
Monteith said he hasn’t received many emails or phone calls from parents after the shooting in Newtown, but he credits the low response to the communication skills of principals in the district.
“Our principals do a great job talking with parents,” he said. “I think there is a good deal of reassurance that the public schools in this town are doing what they can to be prepared to deal with these issues.”
Principals at each Cody school sent out a personalized message about school safety to parents shortly after the shooting in Newtown.
There have been 62 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, with 12 of them occurring in schools. Mass shootings are defined as being carried out by a lone gunman who has taken the lives of at least four people in a single incident.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 98,817 public schools in the U.S. in 2009-10, which means there is less than 0.02 percent chance of a school being the site of a mass shooting in the U.S.
Assistant Superintendent Betsy Sell said tragic events like the shooting in Newtown bring out a strong emotional response, but it’s important to refrain from overthinking school safety in the aftermath of such an event.
“In the best interest of students and teachers and parents, we just need to be mindful to help kids be as smart as they can be about being safe,” she said. “The best thing to do is to not scare kids to death, but to say, ‘OK, let’s talk about this.’”
Sell went through a lockdown procedure while she was a principal at Sunset School and an out-of-state parent was threatening to enter the school to get their child.
An armed officer was posted at the front of the school while the students and staff carried out the necessary procedures.
“It was scary at the time, but in a way it was a great practice,” she said.
Monteith said the district is always looking at new ways to try and prevent such an incident, with the understanding that shooters are able to get into a school if they really want to.
Sandy Hook Elementary locked its front doors every day, but the shooter used a gun to shoot through the front door.
The tragedy sparked a new level of debate about school safety, and National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre announced a week after the shooting that it wants to have armed officers at every school across the country.
Monteith said the guns most commonly used by the shooters – a semiautomatic assault rifle and two semiautomatic handguns were used in Newtown – are not carried by school resource officers on campuses.
“If two people enter a school building and there is one SRO with a handgun, he doesn’t have much of a chance,” he said. “I’m not trying to diminish the quality of the SRO, but these people come with one thing in mind and that’s to hurt people and they are prepared to die in the process. That’s pretty hard to deal with that.”
Monteith said there have been incidents where a student has brought a gun to school in the last 12 years, but the district is aware of the environment in Cody, especially during hunting season.
“We’re pretty cognizant of the fact that we need to be watchful for those things, at the same time we understand the community that we live in,” he said. “The gun culture is powerful here and it’s appropriate here; it doesn’t mean there isn’t somebody out there that can hurt you.”
The district plans to stick to those fundamentals of preparedness, education and communication to maintain a safe environment at schools and take care of the factors it can control.
Monteith said schools will always send out messages to parents when these types of incidents occur to keep the communication lines open and reassure them that the schools are always thinking about safety procedures.
“The greatest fear that any of us have is losing a child,” he said. “All we can do is promise you to do the best that we can to protect them.”
(Nathan Meacham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)