Lessons From Newtown: How Could our Schools Be Safer?

large__8316467617December 14th marks the one year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adult staff members were fatally shot by a gunman with an assault weapon. The tragedy put gun control, mental health services, and school security at the forefront of the news. Twelve months later, some progress has been made but, according to Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, there have been shootings at 26 more schools. 

What can parents do to ensure that the children they send to school in the morning will come home safe at the end of the day?

After the Sandy Hook shooting, mother Alissa Parker, who lost her six-year-old daughter Emilie in the attack, regretted not having spoken up about her security concerns at the school, which followed standard protocols but seemed lax to her compared to other schools. The school’s single line of defense was a locked main entrance that required visitors be buzzed in, a system 20-year-old Adam Lanza was able to overcome by shooting out a window to get inside the building.

Parker and mother Michele Gay, who lost her seven-year-old daughter Josephine at Sandy Hook that day, came together to found Safe and Sound Schools to teach communities around the country how to make their schools less vulnerable to attacks. Three more families of Sandy Hook victims as well as friends, law enforcement officers, school psychologists, fire departments, educators, and security and safety professionals have joined the Safe and Sound team to provide ideas and resources for improving school safety.

The organization’s practical measures focus on creating multiple layers of school security and include landscaping, practice drills, and door locking systems that can decrease an intruder’s odds of doing harm. Parker hopes her hindsight can be other families’ foresight, leading them to speak up, get involved, and improve their school’s safety.

While not comparable in scope to the tragedy at Sandy Hook, recent events at New York City schools raise significant concerns about the effectiveness of security protocols there. On October 4th, autistic teen Avonte Oquendo walked out of his public school in Long Island City without being stopped by school security officers and has not been found. In November, a NBC4 news reporter was able to walk into seven city schools without being questioned by security or school staff.

If a student can simply walk out, or a stranger can simply walk in, are our schools adequately protecting our children?

According to Marge Feinberg, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education, “In response to the disappearance of Avonte Oquendo from his school, [New York City Department of Education] Chancellor [Dennis] Walcott directed staff to conduct a comprehensive review of current safety protocols and procedures for emergency preparedness in order to determine what additional steps are warranted to ensure the safety of all of our students. This comprehensive review is ongoing.”

Feinberg also provided a brief overview of the Department’s existing emergency preparedness procedures and an explanation of steps it is taking immediately to enhance and refine these protocols, both in light of the disappearance of Avonte and the NBC4 news story. These include:

  • To ensure that all Building Response Team (BRT) staff members are prepared for their responsibilities as the school’s core emergency response group who coordinate student, teacher, and staff actions until first responders arrive, the Department is enhancing the training provided for new BRT members and principals and will provide additional central support if needed. To address issues specific to District 75 special needs students, a D-75 staff member will be required to be a part of the BRT in co-located District 75 programs.
  • The Department is strengthening its safety and emergency readiness at all school buildings, including newly constructed buildings, by reviewing how to best utilize security resources such as two-way radios, video surveillance, and public address systems. It is also identifying the potential use of additional security resources such as panic buttons. This is in addition to existing School Safety Plans (SSP), which every school has been required to develop, implement, and maintain since 2000. SSPs are reviewed and approved every year by the Department and the NYPD School Safety Division (SSD).
  • In collaboration with the NYPD, the Department will provide additional training and support for school safety agents to augment the existing training they receive on supporting students with special needs.
  • The Department will reinforce the General Response Protocol (GRP) training and provide additional support if needed to principals and BRT leaders throughout the school year on the GRP and emergency readiness. The GRP is designed to provide all schools with the direction they must take when an emergency incident occurs. All NYC principals were already required to attend a two-hour emergency readiness training session, which included procedures to follow for missing children. The GRPs include both hard and soft lockdowns, evacuations, and shelter-ins. At the start of this year, the Department mandated that schools add two soft lockdowns to their annual drills.
  • To reinforce the GRP training described above, principals will also be provided with additional guidance through support and assistance from Borough Safety Directors regarding missing student protocols. In addition, the safety plan template is being revised to include comprehensive new protocols for missing students. The Department also will enhance the training that is provided for special education paraprofessionals in behavioral support and safety protocols.

NBC4 also interviewed Chancellor Walcott during its news story revealing the school security issues. “When we have probably around 135,000 staff that work with us, you’re going to have issues where some people need to be trained and trained better and some people who don’t necessarily need to be in the system,” Walcott said in the interview, referring to school safety agents who report to the New York Police Department (NYPD).

The NYPD shares responsibility with the Department of Education in training school safety agents. The NYPD Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information, did not respond to Queens Mamas’s request for information about any disciplinary action taken against the safety agents involved in either recent incident, or provide information about changes in training or protocol for school safety agents in regards to these incidents.

While school systems and police departments control many aspects of school safety, parents can also take action. If you’re concerned about your school’s security, reach out to your school administrators and parent-teacher association to review and improve procedures. Safe and Sound Schools also provides many resources and ideas that communities can use to facilitate conversations and problem-solving.

Ellen Sturm Niz is an editor and writer working, parenting, and living in New York City. She dedicates this article to the victims in Newtown.

Photo Credit: Dave Barger via PhotoPin CC