Schools Put Security Lessons to Test After Newtown Shooting, Many Districts Place Renewed Emphasis on Safety
One more step in making public schools as ugly and uncomfortable as possible: In the name of keeping children safe, make them more like prisons.
By Joseph De Avila
Last December's deadly shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six adults were killed, began when the heavily armed assailant made short work of getting inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Districts across the region took notice, and many schools are opening this week with a renewed emphasis on security.
Most administrators have focused on infrastructure, as in the Westchester County town of Valhalla, where the district spent about $400,000 on improved phone systems, more security cameras and buzzers to admit visitors.
Some districts have deployed armed security, and others will crack down on unannounced school visitors.
After Newtown, entrances were among the most commonly perceived school-security vulnerabilities. Adam Lanza shot his way through windows at Sandy Hook Elementary, enabling him to bypass a buzz-in system. Many districts have added bullet-resistant windows and doors and also sought to create single, centralized entrances where visitors must be buzzed in and only gain access after passing through two secure doors.
In New Jersey, the state Department of Education along with local law-enforcement agencies began conducting unannounced security drills in schools following the Newtown shooting.
Starting with 2013-14, New York City public schools added two new emergency security drills per academic year, and principals underwent additional security training this summer. Every city public school has long had security provided by unarmed New York City Police Department officers.
While interest in armed security has grown, it isn't the strategy most districts have adopted. "Some districts have flat out said that no way are we going to put a person that is armed in the district," said Vincent Mustaro, senior staff associate for policy service at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "It really comes to how people are comfortable in a given situation."
A new team of armed retired police officers greeted students in Enfield, Conn., when school started Sept. 3. "They are there to help us with anything that can go wrong," said Jeffrey Schumann, superintendent of Enfield Schools, which enrolls 5,600 students. "If we do encounter someone that is armed, then we have our first line of defense at a very high level."
The new security plan calls for a team of about 28 officers working up to 34 hours a week at the district's 14 schools. The town of Enfield will pay about $630,000 to employ the officers.
Other school districts have opted to use active police officers, known as school resource officers, for armed security. Newtown "certainly has heightened interest in school resource officers and left districts looking to see if they can find money in their budgets," said David Albert, a spokesman with the New York State School Boards Association.
The Somers and North Salem school districts in Westchester are splitting the cost of school-resource officers with the Westchester County Police. "Certainly in light of what happened in Newton, there was a much greater concern regarding the security," said Chief Inspector John Hodges of the Westchester County Police.
The 2,000-student Berkeley Township School District in New Jersey now has a team of school-resource officers. The annual cost will be about $150,000 a year, said James Roselli, superintendent of the Berkeley Township School District.
Newtown itself is using armed security. Elementary schools will have police on guard for the beginning of the school year, according to a blog post by town First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra. Earlier this year, Connecticut passed a law that, among other things, requires school boards statewide to develop security plans for each school.
Summit Public Schools in New Jersey, with about 4,200 students, changed its policy for unannounced visitors. Parents are no longer allowed to drop off anything after school starts. Notes to pick up kids early must be sent a day in advance.
Superintendent Nathan Parker said the district made the change to cut back on visitors, which he said would make schools safer. The district says up to 400 people visit Summit High School each day.
"It's a bit extreme," said Kristen Staub, 41 years old, who has two children in the Summit schools. "Especially with younger children who if they forget their backpack, they become incredibly worried about bringing their homework in."
Some parents said they were OK with the change. "You can get access to the school," said Laura Lameo, 40, who has a second-grader in the district, "but they're just trying to control it a little more, and who wouldn't want more control over people coming back and forth?"
Ă¢€”Ricardo Kaulessar and Lisa Fleisher contributed to this article.
Write to Joseph De Avila at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joseph De Avila
Wall Street Journal