Anchorage school chief reviewing security in wake of massacre

ldemer@adn.comDecember 17, 2012 

The deep horror of Friday's school massacre in Connecticut has prompted the Anchorage School District to review security systems and remind principals and other staff to stay vigilant and watch out for anything, or anyone, suspicious.

For the most part, school in Anchorage went on like usual Monday. Some teachers held class meetings to let students talk out their anguish. They tried to calm fears and help their students process a tragedy that many adults find too painful to bear and impossible to comprehend. Twenty first-graders and six school employees were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., by a young man with no known ties to the school.

Police, school officials and the teachers' union all say the Anchorage School District has solid security procedures that include regular emergency drills. Increased measures from this point might improve safety, but at a cost that goes beyond financial to the schools' very character.

At Sandy Hook school, visitors had to be buzzed into the locked front door, a level of security beyond what's in place in Anchorage. But authorities said gunman Adam Lanza shot his way in.

"Unfortunately when somebody that's deranged makes a decision like this, there's nothing we can do short of having an armed guard at every door," Anchorage Superintendent Jim Browder said.

Still, some improvements may be needed. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, he has asked Mike Abbott, the district's chief of operations, to assess security school by school. Can teachers all lock their classroom doors from the inside? Where are security cameras? Do individual schools have panic buttons or silent alarms, as the district does at its headquarters?

Schools might be safer if fences are erected around them, front doors are locked all day, or security staff is beefed up, but those are measures that the district needs to explore with the community at large, Browder said. He hopes to encourage that discussion at a meet-and-greet set for Jan. 8 at Hanshew Middle School.

People need to think about whether they want schools to be mini-fortresses or warm, welcoming places, he said.

"If the budget is not a problem, there's all kinds of things to do. But I'm not sure that we should be bullied into that kind of behavior by someone that does something crazy," the superintendent said.

 

'KIDS OUT OF SIGHT'

Browder sent out a message Friday and Saturday through the district's automated telephone system to reassure parents, mentioning that every school has an emergency action plan and conducts drills. And he e-mailed principals and staff to be alert.

To save money, the district did eliminate a high-level security position that had been filled by former police Capt. Gardner Cobb and before him, Mark Mew, who is now police chief. Browder said the duties are parceled out to others, including ensuring that school staff are trained in emergency procedures. The district has two school resource officers -- uniformed police officers -- stationed in every high school who also are responsible for the feeder middle and elementary schools. And it soon plans to add a police lieutenant to its security team, Browder said.

During Mew's time with the school district, security procedures were improved and now it's more a matter of reviewing policy, said Lt. Dave Parker, a police spokesman. Police have quick access to school layouts, for instance, he said.

If a shooter was inside an Anchorage school, police would move in fast, Parker said.

"The old-school mentality of waiting them out doesn't work anymore," he said.

Already, schools routinely lock side doors once the day begins so that visitors come in through the front. School doors and locks are sturdy, and front glass doors typically are reinforced with wire, said Andy Holleman, a 15-year teacher who this year became president of the Anchorage Education Association.

"There's an awful lot of safety built into the schools," Holleman said.

If a school suspects a dangerous intruder on the grounds or a shooter nearby, the principal can call for "lockdown." All outside windows and doors are closed and locked, the district says. No one can enter or leave. Students rush to the nearest classroom. Inside doors are locked. Everyone takes cover.

"So within, I'm going to say, 25 seconds, 30 seconds of a lockdown call, the hallways are empty. They're silent. The lights are off in the rooms. The kids are out of sight," Holleman said.

A person roaming the halls looking to hurt someone would have a hard time finding a target, he said.

"I think they've done about everything they can do before they start changing the atmosphere," Holleman said.

 

SCARED CHILDREN

At one Anchorage school on Monday, the day began with a safety meeting. Trailside Elementary principal Sami Graham said her safety committee includes staff and parents. The school already has security cameras that Graham can monitor, but the committee said some may need to be moved to give her a better view of the doors.

They also talked about the concept of a locked front door. If that kept children safer, it would be worth the small inconvenience, parents said.

"They'll just ring the front door bell and it'll take them 20 seconds longer to bring the lunch box" Graham said. The district office would have to approve such a change, she said.

The school's orchestra, band, choir and hand bell performers put on a concert that drew a huge crowd of parents. Normally for a big school event, visitors don't have to sign in. But on Monday, Graham had everyone do so, to reinforce the importance of that safety check.

Teachers of younger children didn't bring up the Connecticut shootings and tried to keep the day as routine as possible, she said.

Fifth- and sixth-grade teachers provided an outlet through class meetings.

"They sit in a circle. They push their desks back. They talk about what's on their minds. Some of the older kids were scared. They knew what was going on," Graham said.

Students raised good questions, she said. What if they're in the bathroom when the school goes on lockdown? Should they lock the bathroom door?

No, they were told. Get to the closest classroom where there's an adult as quickly as possible.

Heidi Embley, school district spokeswoman, said she and her husband talked to their first-grader, 7-year-old Ryan, about emergency procedures over the weekend.

He was able to tell them all about lockdown.

"You lock the door to the classroom and you hide," he explained.

Why do you do that? Embley asked.

"So the bad guys don't take you." Then Ryan thought some more. He added "so you don't get shot."

Can they talk and play games in lockdown?

No, he said. They stay very quiet.

The conversation came while on a family outing downtown to look at the gingerbread village in the Hotel Captain Cook.

Her son seemed matter of fact about something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, Embley said.

Preparing for the worst has become routine.

 

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

 

 

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