In Response to Newtown: How Local School Administrators Plan to Keep Our Schools Safe
When he first heard about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012—that 20 first-grade students and six educators had been killed by a gunman—the first thing Liberty Christian Academy (LCA) Superintendent John Patterson did was pray.
“We initially started praying over here,” Patterson said. “I probably had the same reaction that everyone else had: horrified. The word ‘tragic’ just came to mind. Tragic, that’s all there is to it. No explanation, just tragic.”
The next thing he did was start thinking about LCA’s security plan and whether it could be better. A West Point graduate with five years active-duty Army experience, Patterson said security has been his “number one priority” since coming to LCA several years ago and “will continue to be my number one priority.”
Across town at Holy Cross Regional Catholic School, students were being dismissed early due to the exam schedule and upcoming Christmas holiday. Principal Patti Culbreth was preparing for the afternoon announcements and prayer when she heard news from Connecticut.
“I added a special prayer at that point to our day,” she said.
She also sent a note to parents “to assure them of our various safety protocols and that their children’s safety was our top priority.”
Charlotte Morgan, who heads up New Vistas School in Lynchburg, said the first thing she did after learning of the tragedy was also to notify parents that “we have a crisis management plan in place and they could rest assured that we were prepared to implement it.”
Although New Vistas’ plan is reviewed and updated on a regular basis, Morgan said, she called a meeting of the school’s crisis management team “just because I think everyone felt that it was important to do something.” At the meeting, the team made sure the plan was up-to-date and that if any changes were needed “we were prepared to do that.”
At James River Day School in Boonsboro, the incident prompted the head of school, Mary Riser, to launch a safety audit to ensure her 258 students, grades kindergarten through eighth, would remain safe. Riser said “it made sense” in the wake of the tragedy.
“The fact that this is on everybody’s minds at the moment and [it] seemed like a good time to go back, dig down and look at our crisis management plan,” she explained.
Riser said the audit would involve a variety of people—police, security professionals and architects, for example—who could “take a look at our campus with different perspectives and tell us if [our] management plan is sufficient, covers all the basics and [if there are] recommendations they can make that will make our campus more secure.”
A press release issued by the Lynchburg City Schools (LCS) on December 18 reported that a “comprehensive review of LCS safety procedures and protocols” was underway. While the press release indicated this was being done in response to a mandate from Gov. Bob McDonnell, that “all school divisions in the state to review safety and identify resource needs to ensure this safety,” the city initiated its review before the governor’s announcement.
“We were already doing it, most everybody was,” Ben Copeland, LCS’s assistant superintendent for operations and administration, said. “To be honest with that, [the governor] comes out and says it but there’s no money behind it. Anything we have to do we have to do within our own financial resources.”
That same day, LCS Superintendent Scott Braband, one of two superintendents statewide later named to the Governor’s School Safety Task Force, made several recommendations to the school board regarding security upgrades. Among them was putting school resource officers (SROs) back in the city’s three middle schools. According to the Lynchburg Police Department, SROs were removed from the middle schools in 2011. Currently, officers are stationed only at E.C. Glass and Heritage high schools.
“We would love to get them back in the [middle] schools at some point, once resources are provided to do that,” Maj. Todd Swisher, of the Lynchburg Police Department, said, adding that the decision to remove them was based on staffing and funding issues. “I don’t speak for the school system, but they have an interest in that as well.”
Asked if he also sees SROs in the city’s 11 elementary schools, Swisher said there hasn’t been “a lot of serious consideration [of that] in recent years,” but with what happened in Newtown there’s been “a lot of discussion about a lot of things. That would create a number of additional officers here in the city. It would be a challenge, maybe something that’s discussed in the future.”
Morgan, on the other hand, is not a proponent of putting police officers or armed security guards in schools and said it won’t happen at New Vistas.
“I would never endorse weapons in the schools or guards with weapons in the school,” she said, citing the potential for accidents. “I would never permit that in my school.”
While he didn’t dwell on the specifics of their security upgrades or changes, LCA’s Patterson said there have been some “small changes and reminders to parents.” With armed security and the Liberty University Police close at hand, he said, “we really feel like we’re in a pretty good place here. … I do feel we’re prepared. We want to make sure, as a leadership team, we’re doing all we can, that there’s not one door that’s unlocked, that at all times, our kids are safe.”