Rush to boost school safety sparks flurry of ideas and questions

Tue Dec 18, 2012 4:31pm EST

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(Reuters) - They began calling on Friday morning, even before confirmation of the death toll at Sandy Hook Elementary. Principals, district administrators, school police chiefs all asked the same pleading questions: What can we do? How do we stop this? How can we keep our children safe?

Michael Dorn, phone to his ear until 2 a.m., gave them all the same advice: Slow down.

Every horrific school shooting sets off a rush to bolster security, and Dorn, a widely respected school safety consultant, says he has seen hundreds of millions of dollars wasted in the frenzy to upgrade.

Principals spend lavishly on emergency response software, not realizing how impractical it is to fumble with a log-in during a crisis. Districts buy pricey metal detectors, only to switch them off because they cannot afford to deploy staff to do pat-downs and search book bags.

"People are frightened. They're trying so hard," said Dorn, a former schools police chief who runs the nonprofit consulting network Safe Havens International in Macon, Georgia. "But you want to build something that will last decades. Focus on making quality improvements rather than doing it quickly."

The horrific toll in Newtown has prompted administrators across the U.S. to reassess their safety protocols. Some have found obvious deficiencies that will take money to fix, such as classroom doors that don't lock. Bu t in many cases, security experts say districts can strengthen safety on campus without big spending.

In a survey conducted by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009 -- the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings -- fully a third of educators admitted they sometimes propped open doors to their schools, potentially giving intruders easy access. And almost 40 percent acknowledged they weren't training staff adequately in emergency response.

School safety consultants said such lapses remained common until the Newtown tragedy snapped administrators out of their complacency. "We tend to let our guard down as memories fade," said Paul Timm, president of RETA Security Inc, a consulting firm in Lemont, Illinois.

He and others said schools could greatly improve safety with a series of inexpensive measures: Keep all exterior doors shut and locked. Equip recess monitors with walkie-talkies to report signs of trouble. Regularly review emergency plans and practice for a variety of scenarios, not just an active shooter. Train all adults on campus to recognize behavior patterns that could indicate that a student is planning mischief or malice.

Hundreds of school districts and colleges across the U.S. have also adopted a more controversial approach to safety: teaching staff -- and students -- to fight back in the face of danger.

The ALICE protocol, developed a decade ago by a former police officer in response to a series of school shootings, rejects as inadequate the traditional response to an armed intruder, which prompts teachers and students to lock themselves in their classroom, turn out the lights and hide as best they can.

Greg Crane, the retired police officer who developed ALICE, says rather than fall back on that response, students and teachers must develop the confidence that allows them to think on their feet.

If they can escape the building quickly, through a window perhaps, why huddle in a darkened classroom? And if an intruder enters the classroom, why remain passive; why not run around, scream, throw books and desks at the gunman, even try to tackle him, Crane asks.

"If a predator tried to snatch a child off the street, what part of our advice is for him to remain quiet, static, passive?" Crane asked. "We want you throwing things, yelling, trying to get out of there," he said. The same should hold in a classroom, he said, arguing that even 5- and 6-year-olds can cause enough distraction to confuse a gunman and perhaps buy a few minutes for escape.

"Chaos is not a bad thing," Crane said. "We want to see chaos. That makes it very difficult for the shooter to operate."

The ALICE program -- it stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate -- has sparked concern in some communities, with parents protesting that terrified children can't be asked to confront crazed gunmen or make snap decisions about escape routes.

But Crane said his company, Response Options, which is based in Burleson, Texas, has been flooded with calls since Friday from officials eager to sign up for his $400 training workshop, which prepares participants to teach ALICE to students and teachers in their communities.

While the tragedy at Sandy Hook focused attention on the danger of armed intruders, safety consultants cautioned that schools must also remain vigilant about internal threats from students who may feel alienated or may be struggling with mental illness.

"The ultimate in safety is caring about one another and kids trusting you with information," said Bill Bond, a security consultant with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Bond was the principal at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, when a student opened fire on a morning prayer circle, killing three girls. He advocates programs that connect children with adult mentors.

Such connections are harder to maintain in an era of tight budgets, however. There is just one school counselor for every 471 students in the U.S.; a few years ago, the ratio was 1 to 457, according to the American School Counselor Association. Faced with tight budgets, some districts have asked every adult connected with the school, including bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers, to pitch in with mentoring and monitoring kids.

"People want to be able to say, if we just do X, Y and Z in every school in America, we'll stop these," said Dorn, the security consultant in Georgia. There is no such solution, he said. Each school, and each threat, is too different.

But Dorn said he understands why the school officials who call him up are so eager to do something, anything, at once. "I have a 4-year-old. I took him to school this morning," Dorn said. "I understand the fear." (Reporting By Stephanie Simon. Editing by Douglas Royalty)

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