When Adam Lanza broke into a Connecticut elementary school and committed unspeakable carnage last week, he didn’t just take the lives of 26 people, he stripped away any national sense of complacency over safety in what, statistically, is one of the safest places to be in our society—our schools.
Even though there have been 55 school shootings in this country since 1996, the fact is that the odds of being hurt in a school shooting are extremely slim.
Nonetheless, school districts nationwide are reviewing safety protocols, upping their emergency drill practice, strengthening campus lockdown procedures and giving serious thought to armed guards on campus.
Sandra Lyon, SMMUSD Superintendent, said that all school campuses hold regular emergency drills that include lockdown practice designed to prepare student and staff for any intruder situation.
“Having regular drills is one of the best things we can do to ensure that staff and students can respond quickly when they need to,” Lyon said. “Additionally, we have sign-in procedures at each of our schools and our district office to monitor and screen visitors on campus.”
Lyon also emphasized that staff were on campus to discuss any anxiety children might be feeling.
Malibu principals expressed uniform horror and desolation at the events in Connecticut, but found that their own school parents seem to be united as a community in facing what is unanswerable—are our children safe in our schools?
Phil Cott, principal at Webster Elementary, said he had not witnessed any anxiety in his students.
“We had an event celebrating our ballroom dancing program Friday night,” Cott said. “I had thought about canceling it, but we had a great turnout. It seemed like the children really wanted this place to be with their parents.”
In terms of safety, Malibu administrators each said that increased security had a limit in terms of effectiveness, and that communication was key.
Cott said they regularly practice earthquake drills, have a comprehensive P.A. system to keep everyone informed in the event of an emergency and observe a lockdown protocol where everyone will stay in classrooms, lock the doors and close the blinds. But he wonders how much an individual school can do to guarantee 100 percent safety on campus.
“Our campus is very wide open,” Cott said. “When we have a music program and 200 people show up, what are we supposed to do? Frisk everyone? Gates are locked during school hours and you have to be buzzed in to the main office, but there are limits on what is physically possible.”
Rebecca Johnson, principal for Point Dume Marine Science School, echoed Cott.
“We use the same district-wide protocols and I think they are quite adequate for what we might be able to expect,” Johnson said. “But I don’t know that anything would stop what happened in Connecticut.”
When Johnson worked as a teacher in a Santa Monica school years ago, she had the chance to experience lockdown protocols firsthand. A nearby bank robbery generated an alert and the drill went into action.
“We were locked down completely within 60 seconds,” Johnson said. “So it works. But I have to say our parental support is just as much a part of the security of our campus. I had a lot of messages of support over the past couple of days.”
Pamela Herkner, principal at Juan Cabrillo Elementary, said she and her staff are trying to keep life as normal as possible with a consistent structure. Herkner said that a new buzzer system had been recently installed that forces visitors to first enter the main office. But she added that she was not sure that the strongest fence, gate or even an on-campus guard is what makes schools safest.
“We practice lockdown and bomb threats and everything but truly, I believe our greatest safety asset is the communication our staff and parents have with each other,” Herkner said. “It’s not being nosy, just being in tune with what’s working at your community.”
Herkner said she didn’t think an armed guard on campus would necessarily make the children feel better and questioned the effectiveness of such a move. A parent who is a social worker has already offered her services to the school and other parents have offered to improve the physical security aspects of the school.
“I truly think that good can come out of bad and this horrible event has brought our community closer,” Herkner said. “I’m not making light of what happened, but I still believe schools are the safest place you can be.”
But while parents might be reassured, children might feel an unarticulated anxiety following a tragedy of such magnitude. Dr. Annie Thiel is a clinical psychologist who has practiced in Malibu some 40 years. She said that parents should approach younger children’s fears a bit differently than that of older children.
“With younger children, up to maybe 4th grade, you listen to their questions and answer them, but don’t offer any extra information,” Thiel said. “If they’re older, invite a conversation. If they’re acting out, ask them to talk about what they are feeling. Some kids might not want to sleep in their own bed or are having a hard time concentrating. If they cry, cry with them. It’s important to let them know you feel as they do.”
Thiel emphasized that the importance of keeping children away from the endless barrage of media.
“It’s a distorted reality of endless recurrence,” Thiel said. “But if your child is feeling fearful about going to school remind them that these tragedies are extremely rare. Schools really are a very safe place.”