Wednesday, December 19, 2012

TOP STORY >> More safety promised at local schools

Leader staff writer

Six central Arkansas school districts scrutinized and adjusted safety procedures this week after Friday’s shooting at a Connecticut elementary school put the nation on edge.

Twenty children and six staff members, including the principal, were killed when 20-year-old Adam Lanza open fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. He is believed to have also shot his mother, Nancy, who was found dead at their home.

Lanza committed suicide as police were closing in on him at the school campus.


Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Jerry Guess sent out an email telling principals to be extra vigilant and “take extra safety precautions immediately and through next week. Please make sure your school follows all established safety/security procedures. Please ensure that all exterior doors are locked and that you keep your eyes and ears open for anything out of the ordinary.

“If you have Watch Dog groups or volunteer security, you may want to ask them for extra assistance.”

The district did not add extra safety officers or counselors.

Gary Beck, the principal of Bayou Meto Elementary School in north Pulaski County, said parents have called the office with concerns.

He is planning to hold a meeting after school the week of Jan. 7, when the students return from their holiday break.

“Hopefully if we can put our heads together we can make it safer,” Beck said, adding that he hopes the meeting will turn into a forum where parents and others can offer suggestions about how to enhance security at the school.

He said Bayou Meto would go into lockdown if something like the Connecticut shooting happened there.

That means all of the doors would be locked, the children would stay in their classrooms and police would be notified immediately, Beck said.

He said visitors have to check in at the office and the only door left unlocked at the school is the front door. Anyone coming into Bayou Meto would be seen from the office, Beck said.

He said the staff calls a student’s parent if someone who isn’t on an approved list is checking the child out of classes.

Beck continued, “If someone really wants to do you harm and plans for it, you can take all the precautions you can but it’s hard to prepare for something out of the blue like that. You do everything you can to make it as safe as you can.”


Shyrel Lee, the principal of Cato Elementary School in Sherwood, said the shooting upset several students.

“A lot of kids had been watching the news. We caution parents that it might not be the best idea to let kids watch CNN. We need to shield them some. Some of them understand. Some of them do not understand,” she said.

Lee said the Cato counselors have been working with the students who have been upset.

She has also received calls from concerned parents.

Lee said, “We have plans and we consider ourselves to be very safe. We have been double checking throughout the day to make sure doors are locked.”

Until recently, all doors except for the front door were kept locked. Lee said she sent a memo to parents letting them know that the front door will also be locked from now on. Any visitors will have to call the office to request that someone let them inside the school.

Lee said, “The way our school is laid out, it’s open space. It’s hard to manage everything.”

But a sticker on the doors instruct visitors that they must check in at the office and there are locations where the children can go to be safe in case an intruder enters the school.

“We have to go over emergency plans every year. No. 1 on the priority list is an intruder. We’re telling kids what they need to do if there is a situation. We’re communicating with older kids. We want to be proactive,” Lee said.

Kathy Kemp, the principal of Oakbrooke Elementary School in Sherwood, also said PCSSD requires a crisis prevention meeting at the beginning of each school year.

She said, “We know who’s going to do what, what’s going to happen during an bomb threat or whatever.”

The school has tornado, fire and lockdown drills once a month and security cameras at every door, Kemp said.

She said the staff just started locking all of the doors. Before, there was a note on them telling visitors to go to the front door and check in at the office.

Kemp sent a letter to parents this week about safety at Oakbrooke. She said the fact that the school is located behind the Sherwood Police Department is a comfort.

Teachers are told to carry their cell phones on campus, Kemp added.

“We’ve got the technology. We need to use it,” she said.

Kemp said she is hoping that President Barack Obama’s speech in response to the Connecticut shootings means the federal government will help schools with funding for more measures to keep students safe.

“It’s very traumatizing,” Kemp said about the attack.

Kirk Freeman, the principal of Northwood Middle School in Sherwood, said, “We are emphasizing (safety more).”

He added that Sherwood police are at the school constantly since the property was annexed into the city in November.

Freeman said a lot of parents know the teachers because they have taught several generations of their families. So, those parents may not always go through proper channels when visiting the school.

But he is encouraging everyone to check in at the office and get name badges. Freeman said many people have been very understanding about that.

Sherwood Alderman Tim McMinn opened Monday night’s city council meeting with, “Our hearts are grieving tonight for the moms, dads, brothers, sisters, grandparents, EMTs and police officers of Newtown, Conn. They need our prayers. This shows us how fragile life is and what is really important — our children, grandchildren, our community and our schools and our teachers.”

In discussing an increase in franchise fees, Alderman Charlie Harmon asked that the money be dedicated to adding school resources officers to all city schools and increasing their security.


Janice Walker, the principal of Warren Dupree Elementary School in Jacksonville, said district officials came out recently to review the school’s safety procedures and the placement of security cameras.

She said they determined that the cameras were in good positions, but one additional camera could be added to enhance the view of the outer entrance. Another suggestion the officials made was to install a bigger monitor for the office personnel to view visitors, staff members and students going in and out of the building.

Walker spoke with parents about the school safety at a parent-teacher organization meeting Tuesday night.

She said, “I think there are things the parents can do to help.”

Walker said parents who drop their children off in the morning should remember that the doors open at 7:20 a.m. She said they shouldn’t leave students at the school before then.

The doors at Dupree are unlocked because it is an open space school, according to Walker.

“It’s secured as much as possible,” she said.

Walker said parents have not called her with concerns. “That tells me parents are confident in the safety procedures we have,” she added.

Walker said all schools are looking at locking their doors and adding a buzzer system that would better control access.

She said the district sent out a call to alert parents about safety protocols all its schools have to follow.

Don Booth, principal of the Jacksonville Middle School, said, “My kids know they are safe when they come on the campus.”

He said administrators and security guards walk the campus, being vigilant about anyone who appears to be suspicious and making sure the school is secure.

Booth said no one has called with concerns. The school will conduct a lockdown drill when students return from the holiday break.

There are cameras and monitors at Jacksonville Middle, Booth said. He added that they are working to make sure the school’s gates are also secure.

Jeff Senn, the principal of North Pulaski High School in Jacksonville, said he has requested more security officers, but people without ID badges are stopped immediately and there is a crisis plan in place.

“We’re just double checking ourselves right now,” he said.

No parents have called and students don’t seem to be talking about the shooting, Senn said.

He added that teachers are encouraged to lock their doors and buzz the office if they see someone they don’t recognize walking around.

Security cameras are up and running at the school.

Lisa Peeples, the principal of Homer Adkins Preschool in Jacksonville, said they train teachers every year in safety protocols. Doors at the school are locked.

Parents have called and visited since the tragedy.

“Most of them have stated they know their (children are) safe here and the sadness they feel for the families in Connecticut. We had a security guard for a couple of days. We just hold our kids a little closer and love them a little bit more,” Peeples said.

The preschool also has to meet additional childcare licensing requirements because its students are younger than school age. “We have to be really careful anyway,” Peeples explained.


In North Little Rock, the approach after the Connecticut shooting was low key, with no extra personnel added, but the principals were told to increase security.

By Monday afternoon many elementary schools that had been easily accessed were locked tight except for single doors by the main offices.

The Little Rock district increased security and made 25,000 automated calls to parents to explain the district’s safety procedures.


Cabot Superintendent Tony Thurman said, “We had a few students request to visit with counselors regarding the incident.”

“We received several suggestions from parents and school staff regarding safety that will be taken into consideration. I encourage our parents to provide ongoing feedback to our building and district administrators in regard to school safety and security,” Thurman said.

Schools will be practicing emergency lockdown drills in the upcoming weeks.

“There is a lot of emphasis today on securing our schools. We do not want to lose this focus as time passes and we begin to return our regular routines and the events of last week are not as fresh on our minds,” he said.

“We have full-time police officers based at the high school and both junior high schools and will be requesting their feedback as well,” Thurman said.

A meeting with local law enforcement, medical and fire personnel was already planned for January before news of Friday’s shooting broke.

In an e-mail to faculty and staff members Thurman said building administrators would review and explain the importance of following lock down procedures. He said that Sandy Hook Elementary’s lock down protocol more than likely saved lives.

“Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to totally stop an emotionally unstable person intent on doing bad things,” Thurman wrote.

He said the priority is to put as many obstacles as possible in front of a person trying to hurt people and be able to secure the campus and classrooms as quick and effective as possible.


“The shooting in Connecticut is one of the saddest things I have seen in my educational career. I believe educators feel such a sense of protection for their students, and this example just shows that some things are out of our control,” Beebe School Superintendent Belinda Shook said.

She continued, “The educators at that school who died protecting their students are true heroes. I don’t know if there are security measures to keep someone as mentally unstable as that shooter from acting.”

Shook said, “I still believe schools are safe places and that this was a random act of violence by a very disturbed individual. Unfortunately, we are hearing of these things way too often in shopping malls, churches and schools.”

She continued, “The Beebe School District has crisis plans, security measures and we are going to revisit them all. We will do everything possible to keep our students and staff safe.”

Shook will be meeting with the administrators to review the district’s disaster and crisis plans this week. Shook has e-mailed the staff and asked for suggestions. She has already received several for consideration.

Shook said concerned parents have also contacted her. She said parents with concerns, questions or suggestions should contact their child’s building administrator.

Beebe schools practice limited access into buildings. Visitors are required to sign in and wear a visitor badge. Staff members supervise designated student pick-up areas.
“It is incomprehensible to those who care for children how anyone could deliberately cause harm to innocent young lives. Senseless violence is difficult to grasp and it is important to understand the big difference between possibility and probability. Safety is, and will always be, the first priority of the Beebe School District,” Shook said.


Lonoke Superintendent Suzanne Bailey wrote a report on student safety that was posted on the district’s website.

The report reads, “Our primary responsibility and top priority each day is to do our best as employees of the school system to keep our children safe. When someone is mentally unstable and/or enters the campus armed and with intent to cause harm to others, it does create an atmosphere in our learning environment to which we may or may not be able to control the outcome, no matter how much we practice or provide preventative measures.”

The report continues, “With this said, we, as educational leaders are guarded with the important task of providing a safe learning environment for every student, must do our best to ensure that we have put in place the necessary preventative action steps that we have available at the current date.”

The report goes on to say that administrators met on Monday to discuss school safety, which was set as a district goal at the beginning of this year and has been set as a goal every school year.

School resource officers were planning to visit each campus to provide more safety training to teachers and staff members.

Doors at the schools should be locked at all times, the report states.

School board member Matt Boyles said at Monday night’s school board meeting that he was comfortable with the high school’s security.

“I think you pretty much have to go through the office to get in, but at our other three buildings that isn’t the case,” he said.

Boyles suggested putting in glass doors at the elementary and primary schools that would force visitors to go to the office.

“I know millage is a dirty word. But I think our community (would support it) if we had to have a millage or something, he said.

Bailey said she knows some schools have buzzer systems. She said that would be quicker and less expensive than doing things like putting up walls.

Boyles and other board members said their churches have that kind of setup. Bailey asked them to give her contact information for the companies that installed those.

Boyles also suggested a panic button that would alert police if a situation like the shooting in Connecticut occurred.

Staff writers Jeffrey Smith and Rick Kron contributed reporting for this story.