How safe are our students?

In light of the deadly rampage at a Connecticut elementary school, parents of students want to know

ktanner@thetribunenews.comDecember 19, 2012 

Local school officials say their safety, evacuation and emergency plans are up to date, reviewed frequently, practiced faithfully and updated often.

In the wake of what’s been defined as the second-worst massacre at a school in U.S. history, North Coast school administrators have been reviewing those plans while also trying to determine the most sensitive, effective ways of handling children’s fears, grief and questions.

Staff counselors within the Coast Unified School District have been available for students and others who need assistance or comforting. Meanwhile, area parents now are worrying out loud about the previously unthinkable — are their children safe at school?

Andy Zinn, a Cambria parent, wrote in an email interview Monday, Dec. 17, “Having a daughter in the middle school, and knowing so many families in town, I did think about ‘what if.’ ” He said mock emergency training is good; “The alarm could sound, the children would know to react in a protected way. (But) How against a gun I am not sure.”

Lots of people have called district Superintendent Chris Adams since Friday about the tragedy, and some have connected the dots of community compassion. “‘Sandy Hook is Cambria,’ is what they told me,” he said Monday.

“What struck me most,” said parent Steve Kniffen, “was that Newtown is Cambria … small, cute, affluent, with a sense of safety. But it could happen here, too.”

The massacre

According to national news sources, on Friday, Dec. 14, a shooter carrying four weapons and a large supply of ammunition, killed 20 first graders and six adults, teachers or staff members at a Connecticut elementary school. Adam Lanza, 20, then shot himself; he had previously killed his mother, according to law enforcers.

Now, as the world ponders the assailant’s motives for the massive, tragic slaughter, area officials are carefully scrutinizing plans for what should happen if such a menace should threaten a North Coast campus.

Plans

Since the massacre, administrators have huddled repeatedly with each other, with teachers and staff, in person and by phone, according to Chris Adams, district superintendent.

“We have safety plans at every site, (for instance) in case of earthquake, fire or an intruder on campus,” he said Monday, Dec. 17. “The plans are up to date, and we’re diligent about practicing them,” in earthquake, fire and other drills.

Combining compassion and calendar, the district won’t hold another drill or make changes until after Christmas vacation, Adams said. That also will give students and others time to heal from the horrific news.

Administrators are to “get together as a team over Christmas vacation, get into lockstep so we’re all prepared,” he said. “I believe our kids are safe, but we’ll continue to look at entry points and cameras,” and other means of enhancing protection. “We can’t rest on our laurels.”

He said the safety plans change all the time, based on national, state and local requirements and events. Some changes are basic, such as not using code words in emergency messages, so as not to panic anyone. Such practices proved to be more confusing than comforting, he said, so notifications now would be straightforward to make reactions speedier.

For security reasons, Adams didn’t want to discuss all the specifics in the plans.

Mass trainings

The district also regularly participates in mass-casualty re-enactments, mass evacuation drills and repeated rehearsals with law-enforcement and safety crews, who are allowed on campus regularly, so they can “become very familiar with buildings and structural layouts, so they know where all the nooks and crannies are.”

Unfortunately, all those preparations can’t prevent every catastrophe, Adams said. “Everybody can do everything right, and people still died. But we do everything we can to minimize the danger,” short of putting bars on the windows and doors. “We’re schools, not prisons.”

Kniffen wrote that “Sandy Hook had the best protection it could provide through a locked-down school and a check-in system, yet a man with a mission can make that all moot.”

One concern Zinn has is that “we do not have a police force locally to react — it would not be pretty. They would almost have to install emergency locks on all doors,” locks “that dead bolt upon activation.

The sheriff’s department has a resident North Coast deputy, and State Park rangers are licensed law-enforcement officers who carry weapons.

Kniffen feels “there are many options and opinions on what could be done for improvement.” He wants the district’s Board of Trustees and superintendent to “not make these decisions on their own, in a vacuum. …This decision is a community decision and should be made as such. If this is a concern to Cambrians, then we need to have some specific meeting to discuss all the ramifications of our decisions. If we need to put a gate and kiosk at the bottom of the grammar school to protect our kids, then that decision needs to come from us ... not them.”

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