Ronald D. Stephens has worked in school security for nearly 28 years. As executive director of the National School Safety Center in California, he’s consulted with school officials in places linked forever with school shootings — places like Red Lake, Minn.; Paducah, Ky., Broward County, Fla.; and Littleton, Colo.
But, in one sense, Newtown, Conn., is different, Stephens said.
“I have never seen a school shooting that has been so vicious, so heartless, so callous” as the one that killed 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Stephens said.
The majority of the victims, as much of the world now knows, were 6- and 7-year-olds. Six adults were also shot and killed at the school, including the gunman, Adam Lanza, who took his own life and that of his mother, whom he shot in their home before driving to the school.
Given the horrific nature of the crime, the next point Stephens made might be hard for the public to grasp: Children are safer in school than outside of it. About 100 times safer, if you do the math — and Stephens has.
Since the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, districts have done many things to make schools safer. They’ve installed security systems and initiated better screening of visitors. Many have hired school resource officer. And they’ve adopted school safety plans, which anticipate threats and specify what adults and children will do in the event of everything from earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes, to a gunman on campus.
“After Columbine, there was a lot more emphasis placed on safe school plans,” said Eric Sparks, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association.
No longer simply a vague plan “sitting on a shelf,” the safe schools plan became a working document that addressed specific threats, including the threat of violence. Schools also took training for students and staff more seriously. They had lockdown drills and practiced the routines they would need to follow in case of emergency.
It’s perhaps hard to imagine anything worse than what happened at Sandy Hook. Yet without the kind of training staff members received — and the extraordinary degree of courage and composure they displayed — the Dec. 14 shootings might have claimed even more lives.
“As horrific as the tragedy was in Newtown, it could have been much worse had the teachers, the staff, the principal, the administrators not followed the lockdown procedures they had been trained to follow, had they not actually taken the children and secluded them, really depriving the killer of further targets,” NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón said on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. “So it was their training to basically ferret out the children — keeping them safe, keeping them calm — that made this a less horrific tragedy than it could have been, in terms of numbers.”
In the days after the shooting, Negrón also spoke on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” where he said that the recent shooting by an external gunman represented “a turning point” in the discussion of school safety. He said this should elicit discussions between district officials and law enforcement about how to deal with a shooter from outside the school community. In the wake of Columbine and other school shootings, schools focused on internal issues, such as school climate and bullying, and on identifying students with mental problems. This kind of effort, while essential, does not address a threat posed from outside.
Negrón told C-SPAN that moves to arm teachers and administrators, which have been suggested by Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and others, are not the answer because school staff members are not routinely trained in law enforcement.
“Teachers and administrators are hired to teach our children,” Negrón said. “That’s a very different skill set [from law enforcement].”
Sparks, of the American School Counselor Association, agreed.
“Having school staff with guns — that would be a challenging situation in terms of training and school safety,” Sparks said. “And it takes a whole different angle on the possibility of things going wrong.”
That could include gun accidents and other unintended consequences of adding firepower to some 120,000 places across the country that were designed for learning – what Stephens likened to creating “120,000 Fort Knoxes.” Is that the kind of climate we want for our children? he asked.
And even these actions would not ensure protection from a heavily armed intruder, unconcerned for his own life and bent on mass murder, Stephens said.
“I don’t know of a school district in America that is prepared to deal with assault-style attacks on their campuses.”