A few weeks ago, a Waterford Elementary kindergartener looked to her teacher after seeing a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy walk down a hallway at the school.
The girl said she was scared by the deputy’s presence, but teacher Chrissy McCurdy assured her the deputy was there to evoke the opposite reaction.
“They come in to just check on our building, to make us feel safe,” she said.
That’s why sheriff’s deputies have been stopping by schools more frequently in the months after the shooting that took the lives of 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It’s also the reason area school districts have been upgrading their security and expanding training.
Marietta High School students had already been introduced to the A.L.I.C.E. – alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate – program by city police to show them alternatives to the traditional procedures of locking doors and waiting for police to arrive in the event of a shooting incident at the school. Plans were always to extend it to the elementary and middle schools in the district, but the Sandy Hook shootings provided increased emphasis.
Last week, Marietta Middle School students were introduced to the program and watched a demonstration as their classmates hurled balls at a teacher portraying a gunman and wrestled him to the ground in a dramatic illustration of the last-resort “counter” portion of the program.
“This is the only legal time to create total chaos in your classroom,” Marietta Police Officer Pat Gragan, the city school district’s resource officer, told students.
The program also emphasizes clear communication over building loudspeakers so students and staff will know where a gunman is and when it is safe to evacuate. Police Sgt. Rod Hupp said the idea is to give students options but emphasized there is no guaranteed way to prevent casualties in such a situation; the goal is to minimize them as much as possible.
“We’re no longer going to tell you that you have to sit and die,” he said, referring to the traditional lockdown method. “If someone’s there to take your life, you have options.”
A.L.I.C.E. training has also been offered for Marietta’s elementary schools but it focuses on staff and faculty rather than students, given their age.
The sheriff’s office has also been working with schools in the county, providing training similar to the A.L.I.C.E. program and conducting live-shooter drills at schools including Warren and Waterford high schools, Sheriff Larry Mincks said.
“It went super well in terms of student cooperation, staff cooperation, community cooperation,” Waterford High School Principal Randy Shrider said.
Parents were notified in advance that the drill was coming up, and students were allowed to contact their families right before it began. Shrider said he received no calls or complaints about the process.
“My interpretation of that is that the community and parents and students welcomed it,” he said.
There was also an evacuation drill at Belpre High School, and A.L.I.C.E. training was provided to staff members during a professional development day in February by a former sheriff’s deputy and a Belpre Police officer. Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said in an email this week that safety plans for the elementary and high school have been updated and a camera system is being tested at the high school.
“It is important to keep in mind that such systems are very expensive and are much more difficult to retrofit to older buildings than install in new construction,” Dunn said. “It is also important to remember that such systems are simply a deterrent to violent offenders and not a cure for the bigger problem of mental illness that is plaguing our society.”
Other districts are also implementing security changes.
Wolf Creek has contracted with Southeastern Security to install door buzzer and camera systems at Waterford Elementary and the high school at a cost of $9,025, with the company donating some materials.
In the Warren Local district, a $60,000 project to install cameras, card readers and remote entry mechanisms at all three elementary schools and buildings 1 and 6 at the high school was recently completed. The board of education also approved providing office space for sheriff’s deputies at the high school.
Fort Frye Local is adding key-card readers at its elementary schools and high school for $22,471.
Marietta City Schools already had electronic buzzers and cameras installed at its schools, but the locks are not engaged at the high school, where students move between the main building, the auditorium and gymnasium and the district administration building throughout the day. A plan to add classroom space and build an enclosed walkway to the auditorium and gym is expected to be completed in time for the start of the 2013-14 school year. The timetable was accelerated somewhat in the wake of Sandy Hook.
Frontier Local Superintendent Bruce Kidder did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday about the district’s security measures. Frontier was working recently to provide sheriff’s deputies online access to the schools’ security camera systems.