Schools Need More Secure Campuses

Everytown for Gun Safety reports that on average a school shooting occurs every week in America.

It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around such a statistic.   A school should be a haven for children, a safe place for parents to have their kids while at work.

When students go to school, all are expected to return home safely.

Only these days, there seems to be no sanctuary from maniacs causing death and misery to innocent people, the most recent example being the tragedy that happened last week at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

How ironic that since 9/11 no foreign terrorist attack has hit our shores, yet terror has become more prevalent in the form of Americans who plan and execute random shootings on school campuses.

Have lockdowns and bomb threats become part of the culture of going to school for students and teachers?

When I took teacher credential classes at Cal State University, Northridge many years ago, there was never a discussion about what to do during a lockdown because Columbine was still more than a decade from happening.

As if teaching does not have enough challenges, now there is a sense of potential dread that at any given moment, completely unannounced and in the blink of an eye, a teacher and her students may face a deadly threat. Once that notion has been planted, it cannot be redacted from one’s psyche.

The common strategy on dealing with a shooter on campus is to have a lockdown, locking doors, turning off lights, and hiding under desks.

I have had to sweat it out over two real lockdowns that thankfully turned out to be harmless but were still emotionally trying for the two-hour duration as I huddled with 30-some students under tables on the floor with the lights out, some students sobbing.

The main rationale for this procedure is so that when the police arrive on the scene they won’t confuse who the shooter is.   Frankly, if I heard shots in the classroom right next to mine, I have no idea how I might react. It seems to me that making a run for it in the opposite direction of the shooting would produce a higher survival rate than cowering on the floor and listening for the shooter to approach.   A locked door would hardly deter a determined killer.

While the public and political pundits debate gun control, the local schools boards in our communities should work independently on how to better secure school facilities.

In Glendale, all elementary schools have secured entry doors that require a buzz-in.

Scott Anderle, Assistant Director of Student Support Services for GUSD, said that due to the recent bomb threat evacuation that took place at Hoover High, the district was able to put into use newly installed high definition cameras that aided in the investigation.

But even the most sophisticated equipment can’t detect an impending threat. That is where vigilance on the part of everyone is needed.

“We get our best info from students,” Anderle said.

The district will be examining modifications to its current lockdown procedures for an active shooter such as allowing the classroom teacher to make the decision whether to stay put or to relocate students to a secured location away from the incident “if it is safe to do so.”

No one wants schools to resemble penitentiaries, but in today’s America, prisons seem safer than schools.   When is the last time you read about a mass shooting at a prison?

Unlock the lockdowns

When I was in elementary school we used to practice two emergency drills:  one for fire which was an evacuation, and another for a nuclear bomb, commonly known as a duck and cover.  During the Cold War, the Red Scare, a Soviet Union attack, was on everyone’s mind.

Then the 1971 Sylmar earthquake happened and all the schools began practicing earthquake drills.

After the shootings at Columbine in 1999, soon lockdown drills were added to the emergency drill repertoire.

And now the history books will add Sandy Hook in 2012.  I’m not sure if this stomach-wrenching tragedy will generate any changes in emergency procedures.  However, here’s hoping smart people will reexamine the lockdown procedure.

I have experienced two real lockdowns.  Thank God, neither one turned out badly.  Much of the horror stems from the tactic employed of locking the doors, turning off the lights, students hiding in the corners. Remaining quiet and motionless on the floor, uncomfortably cramped under a table for two hours is terrifying, trying to peek through vertical blinds for any shadow approaching.

I’ve never understood the logic behind the lockdown drill.  Most school shootings are perpetrated by students who attend those campuses, meaning they are fully aware that just because a door is locked and a room dark does not mean no one is inside. Any killer can easily shoot out a door and find a classroom of sitting duck victims. 

At Sandy Hook, the murderer calmly walked into rooms and executed kids who were motionless.

For the teacher, there is no worse feeling than having no communication with the administrators.  Besides the P.A. announcement of a lockdown, no further messages are aired.  No e-mails are sent to teacher computers.  Cell phones aren’t even utilized.

“It was only fifteen minutes,” an outside observer may comment.  But let me tell you, when you are crouched down under a table, hearing muffled cries and whispers from students, unsure how to comfort them, unable to calm your rapidly beating heart, peering up through the slits of vertical blinds hoping not to get a glimpse of a gunman, it seems like an eternity.

I understand the logic of not having kids run wild.  A maniac is likely to shoot a moving target.  However, at least there is a chance of escape.  Crouching under a table only works on the completely random chance that the shooter doesn’t choose that classroom.

While we all know these tragic events are thankfully quite rare, they unsettle all of us:  parents, teachers, children.         

School officials need to figure out a better way of protecting children during future lockdown episodes.   Standing still in one place in the dark is not allowing innocent teachers and students a fighting chance.

It wasn’t that long ago when society feared a foreign intruder harming our nation.  Now, that intruder is among us.