A shooting at an elementary school rocked Townville, S.C., leaving a 6-year-old dead and two other students and a teacher injured.
But school leaders say the situation that unfolded late last month could have been worse if not for practices that limited the alleged 14-year-old shooter’s access to the building and the students inside. Those included self-locking external doors, visibility inside the building, and staff members prepared to respond to an active shooter, Anderson District 4 Superintendent Joanne Avery said in a letter to parents.
The shooter, who police say shot and killed his father before arriving at the 285-student Townville Elementary School, began firing from the playground as children were coming outside for recess.
“Immediately upon those shots being fired, our students were led to safe locations by the teachers,” Avery said. “The doors were secured, and the shooter was denied access to the building and our students. Administrators and teachers at Townville Elementary followed all district procedures by immediately placing the school on lockdown and taking children to secure locations.”
In the aftermath of school shootings, public debate often focuses on such issues as arming teachers, increasing police in schools, or investing in costly security infrastructure. That’s the case now in Anderson County, where some leaders have proposed placing school resource officers in every elementary school or allowing teachers to carry guns.
But many school safety experts say more basic efforts to limit schools’ exterior access, boost visibility indoors, and train teachers and staff about how to respond to an intruder are some of the most important steps schools can take.
“We need to reinforce or reintroduce these basic fundamentals,” school security consultant Kenneth Trump said. “We have a number of people in the post-Sandy Hook era who’ve been focused on questionable, over-the-top tactics,” he said, referring to the 2012 shooting at the Newtown, Conn., school that took the lives of 20 students and six staff members.
The family of 6-year-old Jacob Hall, who died after several days in critical condition, laid the kindergartner to rest in Townville last week after a superhero-themed service.
The alleged shooter awaits trial on two counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. He never made it into the building, officials said.
A volunteer firefighter, who arrived on the scene, restrained him until law-enforcement officials arrived seven minutes after the shooting started.
The school canceled classes for several days before planning to return last week. Teachers were to return a day early to prepare to address the issue in classes, and the district planned to provide counselors and therapy dogs for students to help them process the events emotionally, the superintendent said.
The school took “additional safety precautions” as students were scheduled to return, including an increased police presence to calm parents’ fears, Avery wrote in a message to families before school was set to resume.
“We want our children to feel safe, but we don’t want the additional police presence to scare them,” Avery wrote. “We are attempting to find a healthy balance.”
It’s not unusual for educators and policymakers to explore upgraded safety measures in the aftermath of an attack, and those conversations often extend beyond district and even state boundaries as parents around the country respond to news reports with fear and anxiety.
The “fundamentals” of school safety training and controlling exterior access were stressed at schools across the country after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, which dramatically changed practices, said Trump, who is based in Cleveland.
But the safety of vulnerable children is an understandably emotional topic, so members of the public often look for quick fixes like untested response plans and expensive gadgets, he said.
“There’s been this sort of mantra of do something, do anything, and do it fast,” Trump said.
Townville Elementary School and the entire Anderson County district had made a number of safety upgrades in the last six years, Avery said. Those included locked entry vestibules in all schools, systems that require visitors to buzz for entry, cameras to improve visibility in hallways, and regular safety drills with students and staff members, she said.
Trump said it’s important for schools to focus on such “human elements” of safety such as training and teaching staff members about proper protocols because even the most sophisticated door lock won’t keep a school safe if that door is propped open against school rules.
“The nuts and bolts things that need to be done take as much time as they do money,” Trump said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2016 edition of Education Week as Shooting Reignites Safety Concerns