How schools are protecting our students

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School officials reassure parents, students that precautions are in place

By Todd Martin

In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Friday in which left 26 dead, including 20 students, Shelby County Public Schools Superintendent James Neihof was quick to let parents know that SCPS has been and is continuing to do it all it can to keep students safe.

“We sent an E-mail to parents last night [Sunday] and to staff,” he said. “We also put a statement on our Web site.”

A separate E-mail to staff gave some suggested guidelines on how to deal with students’ questions and concerns and how to make them more comfortable with the situation locally. Neihof also noted to the staff that he is available to talk and left them with a quote from Winston Churchill: “Keep calm and carry on.”

In the letter to parents, Neihof reiterated some suggestions of how the American Psychological Association recommends discussing the topic with children, including answering questions and watching for signs of stress, fear or anxiety.

The statement on the school district’s Web site briefly outlined safety practices and stated that the schools would remain in contact with the local law enforcement for assistance if needed.

Although Neihof was out in front of the issues and questions that could follow, other districts have taken a different approach. For instance, Oldham County schools hosted a safety forum to answer questions and explain procedures.

At Cornerstone Christian Academy, teachers on Monday began to lock classroom doors when students were in the rooms as an extra precaution.

Such steps are indicative of how, after Sandy Hook, districts around the nation have been looking at security and even suggesting that large sums of money be spent on new protections.

For now, Shelby County will stay with its current safety procedures, which they are reinforcing in many ways.

Neihof and Kerry Whitehouse, the assistant superintendent for operations, spent Monday traveling to the schools, talking to students, teachers and administrators about policy and answering questions about school safety.

“We’ve had some children at a few schools that were concerned and had questions,” he said. “Once student was concerned that the doors were locked, so a teacher personally walked him to the front doors to ease his concern. There has been a few tears, but our teachers and administrators have handled things very well.”

Neihof has assured students and parents the district and each individual school has a crisis plan, but they’ve been advised not to completely share those plans.

“The Kentucky Center for School Safety advises us not to share our full plans, because there is the potential for them to be known too well by possible perpetrators,” he said.

However, he did note that each school has evacuation sites, with backups in place, in case of emergency and several other precautions.

“One thing we do is drill regularly for lockdown possibilities,” Neihof said. “That’s largely left up to the individual schools, and we expect a minimum of one per year at the advice of the Kentucky Center for School Safety. But many of our schools do more than that.

“We have asked that they not do one this week, to ease any possible confusion or possibly worrying the students.”

Neihof said most schools will do their drills early in the year, serving as a reminder to students and staff, and making sure that new students and staff know the procedures for the year.

“However, I do expect, with this fresh in everyone’s mind, that when we return from the [holiday] break, we’ll be seeing some schools doing lockdown drills,” he said.

Neihof also noted that the district was contacted by the Shelby County Sheriff’s office and the Shelbyville Police Department about an increased presence around the schools.

“We’ve had law enforcement visiting the schools this week at their request, although we certainly were not opposed to it,” he said. “They wanted to come in and see the principals and staff, making sure that their faces are known. And in some cases walking around the schools.”

One question that is often asked is how visitors are let into the schools.

“In Shelby County we have two types of entry,” Neihof said. “One is entry into a vestibule and the only entrance from there is into the office, and that’s in about half our schools. The older schools, built when that wasn’t a common design, are equipped with the buzzer system, where visitors ring a bell and are identified on camera by someone in the school before being buzzed in.

“We have that type of entrance at Cropper, Shelby County, Southside, West, Simpsonville and Heritage.”