By nearly all accounts, the staff and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School did everything right on Dec. 14—and with the security measures they took before that day—when a young man armed with powerful weapons blasted his way into the school.
But the deadliest K-12 school shooting in American history, a day that President Barack Obama has called the worst of his presidency, has revived debate over how best to ensure that schools are safe for students.
The proposals include arming teachers and principals and resurrecting and bolstering an expired federal ban on assault weapons. A number of state lawmakers have said they will—or have—introduced legislation to allow school employees to carry weapons or to ease rules against concealed weapons on school grounds for people with valid permits.
Two days after the killings in Newtown, Conn., former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett was among the first to suggest that principals or other school personnel should have weapons. A week after the shootings, the top executive of the National Rifle Association, Wayne R. LaPierre, called for staffing every public school with armed security officers.
Arming more people, especially school staff members, drew sharp criticism from many in education, however, including teachers’ unions and principals’ associations. President Obama, likewise, seemed unconvinced that additional weaponry was the best solution.
“I am not going to prejudge the recommendations that are given to me,” he said on the NBC
News program “Meet the Press” late last month. “I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools.”
Groups Weigh In
Others were more forceful about their opposition to proposals to increase firepower at schools.
“It is not reasonable to expect that a school official could intervene in a deadly force incident, even with a modicum of training, quickly and safely enough to save lives,” the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals said in a joint statement. “Is the school really safe, a parent might wonder, if the principal feels that he or she needs to carry a firearm?” the groups continued.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers had a similar reaction.
Some were especially bitter about the idea floated by the Fairfax, Va.-based NRA that a lack of guns in schools, rather than those the Newtown gunman was armed with, might have been the cause of the 26 deaths at Sandy Hook.
Reacting to the comments from the NRA, the NEA said that “their delusional assumption that everything other than guns contributes to these tragedies reflects just how out of touch the NRA has become.”
The debate brought renewed attention to one rural Texas district’s policy of allowing some employees to carry weapons, including firearms.
The policy in the 110-student Harrold district on the state’s border with Oklahoma has been in place since the start of the 2008-09 school year. It came in the aftermath of other campus shootings, including the one in 2007 at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University that took the lives of 32 people, in addition to the student gunman’s.
Harrold Superintendent David Thweatt has said that one driver of the policy is that his town is a half-hour drive from the nearest sheriff’s office, and that the district’s only campus is only about 500 feet from a major road, making it a potential target. Despite other security measures, including a single entry point into the school and surveillance cameras, Mr. Thweatt said he thought “hope is a lousy strategy” when dealing with armed intruders in schools.
No armed school employee in Harrold carries a weapon against his or her will, he added, and the district treats the identity of armed employees as a personnel matter, so such information is kept from the public. The ammunition carried by employees, who are trained to use their firearms, is “frangible,” meaning that it will break apart when it hits hard surfaces to avoid ricochet.
There was no opposition in the community when the district adopted the policy, Mr. Thweatt said, and after the Newtown shootings the response from parents in his district essentially was: “Thank you for having the foresight to do something.”
Despite the distinct aversion many others in the education community have to the idea of adding weapons to school campuses to bolster security, there is strong sentiment that something must change in a nation freshly galvanized by an incident of gun violence.
“Are we doing enough to keep children safe from harm? I don’t think so, and neither does President Obama,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in remarks at a Washington elementary school after the shootings in Newtown.
The secretary is one of the Cabinet members tapped by the president to serve on a commission led by Vice President Joe Biden to examine gun violence, mental-health services, and other policies and report back by later this month.
Declaring school safety a “collective responsibility,” Mr. Duncan specifically urged federal lawmakers to reduce the size of gun magazines, reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons, and ensure existing gun-control laws are being enforced.
In addition, lawmakers in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have introduced bills that seek to either restrict the use of assault firearms or address school-safety issues more directly.
In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has created a panel to review school safety procedures and recommend needed changes in his state.
While federal gun-control laws may be in need of review, school security experts warn against making hasty changes to safety and security procedures.
“If you are going to rush this week to fix things, you are probably going to make some mistakes,” said Michael S. Dorn, a former school police chief in Georgia who runs the Atlanta-based Safe Havens International, a widely consulted, nonprofit school-safety organization. “Districts need to take their time and build something that will work for the next decade.”
Primarily, Mr. Dorn said, security measures and preparedness steps have to make sense for numerous emergency scenarios that can unfold at school, not just an active gunman, a rare occurrence.
Training every staff member to look for signs of “off behavior,” even subtle ones, from people who come into schools, is critical, he said. It could be how people walk, he said, how they shift their eyes, or speak.
That same training applies in many other, more common scenarios in schools, Mr. Dorn said, including learning to spot signs of students who are having a medical emergency, for example.
Nevertheless, districts around the country added or increased the police presence at schools as students returned to classes last week.
Police in Monroe, Conn., where Sandy Hook Elementary students began classes Jan. 3 at an unused middle school renamed to match their former campus, declared it the safest school in the country. Every car entering campus was being stopped and drivers questioned, but police would not disclose details about other security measures in place.
And once the investigation into the Newtown shootings is complete, school safety practices around the country may be revised again, said Steve Zipperman, the chief of the police force for the 660,000-student Los Angeles school system. “Whatever we can learn from once the investigation is over in Connecticut will help ensure we have best practices in place,” he said.
But school security experts say that even in hindsight, the security measures at the nearly 500-student Sandy Hook Elementary weren’t lacking.
A school security system kept the intruder, at least for a few seconds, from just walking through the front door. A secretary switched on the public-address system as shots rang out, alerting the entire school that something was amiss without saying a word.
Teachers and other school employees, who had practiced how to handle a variety of emergencies, quickly herded students into closets, kept them quiet, and locked their doors, while the principal and the school psychologist tried to confront the
shooter. Teachers tried to distract the gunman to save children’s lives.
“At Sandy Hook, a number of things went very well,” said Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, an advocacy group in Westlake Village, Calif. But when someone is intent upon committing an act of violence, “we have to realize that even on the best of days, schools have certain limitations,” he said.
Nevertheless, one Connecticut lawyer sought to sue the state for $100 million on behalf of a 6-year-old Sandy Hook student who was not injured in the shootings, claiming that the state, the state education department, and the state education commissioner failed to protect students from foreseeable harm. The Connecticut attorney general said, however, that he was “aware of no facts or legal theory under which the state of Connecticut should be liable for causing the harms inflicted at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” and the suit has been withdrawn, at least for now.
Looking at the Statistics
Major episodes of school violence remain rare. The most recent data from the National Indicators of School Crime and Safety show that during the 2009-10 school year, there were 33 school-associated violent deaths. Of those, 25 were homicides, five were suicides, and three were “legal interventions,” meaning the deaths were caused by police or security personnel. Those numbers include 17 homicides and one suicide of school-age children.
But past incidents sometimes set a macabre bar for future episodes of violence, Mr. Stephens said.
“Our school crises that we experience today, we expect a certain amount of one-upmanship,” he said, with some shooters making plans to make their attacks bigger and more devastating.
In Newtown, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fired at least 100 rounds, and Connecticut’s chief medical examiner said everyone killed suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Mr. Lanza carried two handguns, several hundred rounds of ammunition, and a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle when he entered the school.
In some violence plots thwarted by educators or law enforcement, Mr. Stephens said, the would-be perpetrators have declared that “we’re going to make Columbine look like kindergarten stuff,” referring to the 1999 shooting deaths of 14 students, including the two student gunmen, and one teacher at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo.
Promoting ways to increase security-related intelligence—such as providing avenues for students to report rumors or other concerns and ensuring that students trust and feel connected to adults at their schools—may be a worthwhile endeavor, said Dennis McCarthy, a former U.S. Secret Service agent in Blue Valley, Kan., who consults on school safety and security issues. But he also cautioned against rushing to introduce additional security measures.
Schools have been boosting security for years. From the 1999-2000 to the 2009-10 school years, federal data show that there was an increase in the percentage of public schools reporting the institution of measures such as controlling access to their buildings and grounds during school hours, using security cameras, equipping individual classrooms with telephones, or requiring faculty members to wear badges or photo identification.
Overdoing security measures and overusing emergency drills can be counterproductive, especially with younger children, said Richard W. Fry, the superintendent of the 3,000-student Big Spring district in Pennsylvania.
“If you do more than [necessary], they’re going to internalize it,” Mr. Fry said. “Making them love school—how can you do that if you’re scared?”
Staff Writers Lesli A. Maxwell, Sarah D. Sparks, Andrew Ujifusa, and Jaclyn Zubrzycki contributed to this article.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Shootings Revive Debates on Security