Kindergarten teacher Jan Patching, her line of children in tow Monday afternoon on the sidewalk in front of John Jacob Astor Elementary School, goes from idling bus, to bus dropping her young charges off at their assigned rides home.
All the while, teaching assistants and administrators watch the schoolwide procession – buses and teachers alike aren’t allowed to leave until every district-transported child is on the proper route home. The entire operation, loading hundreds of children, takes about 10 minutes.
“First and foremost, my job is to protect them,” said Patching, whose grandson is a second-grader at Astor. “I think that’s what those teachers who lost their lives (at Newtown, Conn.) were trying to do.”
Over the last couple of weeks, classes across Clatsop County returned from winter break, and districts, with the shadow of Sandy Hook Elementary School over them, have renewed their focus on security procedures while trying to assure students and parents alike that local schools provide a safe learning environment. What’s also becoming a common sentiment, though, is that prevention might be a more efficient tool than only focusing on beefing up security.
“I think ours is out of date,” said Astoria Superintendent Craig Hoppes about his district’s board-mandated emergency plan, originally adopted in 1990 and re-adopted in 2003. He said the district hasn’t reviewed the plan in three or four years.
“One of the things we’re doing right now, I have asked staff to take a week and look at all procedures in place.”
Superintendents across the county have instituted similar reviews, each with a crisis response plan shared with the primary responding police agency. Some schools are inviting police into schools to assess the security of buildings and drill using “live” shooters and hostages inside the school.
“To have an elementary school targeted just seemed really heinous,” said Astor Principal Travis Roe. “The first thing I thought of was what I can do to make this building as” safe as possible. He said it’s a delicate balance of promoting security while not making it too overbearing on the school.
In addition to the intricate bus-loading procedures, Astor divides waiting parents and students on either side of the library, making the former sign in before taking their children home for the day. Requiring sign in and a visitor’s badge has become common practice at most districts, in an effort to track everyone on campus.
Expect almost all entryways to schools to be locked to all but staff and faculty, for whom districts often also have ID badge requirements. Several school districts also keep security cameras trained on the hallways.
Meanwhile, staff and faculty in many schools receive regular assignments to monitor different portions of their schools, making contact as soon as possible with any nonstudents on campus. They regularly practice evacuations, lock-downs, lock-ins and other emergency drills with students.
“The balance here is between community access and safety,” said Warrenton-Hammond Superintendent Mark Jeffery about securing a campus, adding that short of building a prison facility such as South Jetty and the Oregon Youth Authority, the Warrenton-Hammond district can never fully secure itself from attack.
Jeffery said Warrenton is currently filling in gaps in fencing, looking to start locking more doors and rerouting student traffic into safer corridors.
Guns in schools
Both state and federal law prohibit people from carrying guns on campus, although concealed handgun license owners are exempt.
School districts around the county, including Astoria, Seaside, Warrenton-Hammond and Jewell, have kept the same policy on hand stating that students and other adults “shall not bring, possess, conceal or use a weapon on or at district property, activities under the jurisdiction of the district or interscholastic activities administered by a voluntary organization approved by the State Board of Education.”
“I’m not interested or in favor of staff members carrying weapons at school,” said Hoppes. “I’m personally not in favor of it.”
Jeffery said that a better option is having a trained school resource officer from the local police department, although without state or federal funding, he doesn’t see it as a likely alternative.
Others have questioned whether a mass of security measures is even the most efficient deterrent, especially when the shooter can often be a student or otherwise associated to the district.
At Sandy Hook, late principal Dawn Hochsprung had recently instituted new security measures of her own, locking entry to the school after 9:30 a.m. and requiring all visitors to ring a buzzer and be signed in. Lanza, armed with two handguns and an assault rifle, had to be admitted access to the school before going on his rampage.
“The biggest thing I’ve found over my 38 years… is getting kids to understand that they need to report what they read and hear,” said Bob Gross, chief of police in Seaside. “That’s the biggest thing, is getting students to understand that they’re not snitching anybody off, but keeping them and their” classmates safe.
Reaching out before a tragedy
Students at Broadway Middle School mob Cpl. William Barnes, a former school resource officer for the Seaside School District, as he walks into the cafeteria Tuesday during lunch, trying to get one of his police badge stickers.
Barnes, who saw Seaside’s school resource officer program cut in 2006 after grant funding ran out, still takes time in between other police calls to visit with students at all three schools in Seaside.
“Children are a lot more in tune with things than we think,” said Barnes, who tries to visit each school during their lunches and catch up withhigh schoolers around campus. “When I get it from their perspective, it’s easier to deal with issues.”
Barnes said that students, if he gets to know them, will tell him if they notice anything out of place, and he can often preempt a bigger problem. Peter Ansel Williams, a 16-year-old at Astoria High School, was arrested after being turned in by a student from Warrenton High School who reported him as trying to enlist help on Facebook for a shooting.
“As we continue to take measures to keep our students safe it is important to remember that our greatest tool for student safety is building positive, trusting relationships with our young people,” wrote Seaside High School Principal Sheila Roley in a letter to parents after the Newtown shootings.
Teachers, administrators and police officers have pointed to communication and a focus on mental health as the key to preempting more serious situations.
“One area that is concerning more so than safety is the mental health of people,” said Hoppes. “That’s what’s causing the problems with safety.”
Williams is under the care of the Oregon’s Juvenile Psychiatric Security Review Board until he is 25 and receiving mental health evaluations. Kip Kinkel, the shooter at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., was reported to have suffered from schizophrenia, and there has been much speculation on the mental state of Lanza.
“I think it’s a community issue, not just a school issue,” said Barnes about keeping children in school safe, adding that keeping a good rapport with residents around schools is also key for learning about potential threats. “Everyone plays a part.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.