The December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut continue to reverberate as officials around the country take closer looks at security measures on their campuses.
In Olympia, legislators are proposing bills aimed at ensuring Washington schools are prepared for armed intruders.
In Puyallup, School Board members recently reviewed safety practices and heard about newly installed technology that provides clear and calm communications during a school-wide alert.
Eatonville is planning a major emergency drill designed to uncover weaknesses in its plans for dealing with violent school attacks by outsiders.
And in both Tacoma and Puyallup on Tuesday, voters will decide bond proposals that include modern architectural designs with more secure, single-entry points into school buildings.
Tacoma’s bond measure also includes small projects such as eliminating an emergency radio dead zone on one high school campus, cutting a safety window into a solid wall that now blocks entryway views at another school, and installing new blinds at other schools so staff could block windows in a lockdown.
State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican and a former member of the Puyallup School Board, said his proposal on safe school buildings allows school districts to work with local law enforcement agencies to develop a “panic alarm” system.
“We want the right solution in place,” said Dammeier, sponsor of Senate Bill 5197.
The right solution is a constantly evolving goal, said Barb Pope, the director of student services for the Puyallup School District who helps oversee emergency planning for the district.
“We take our direction from the best practices that come from first responders,” she said. “Their recommendations come from the tragedies that are happening.”
After the 1999 school shootings in Littleton, Colo., Pierce County led a movement to provide online blueprints and maps of schools. These tools would help police and fire departments navigate a school campus when arriving for an emergency.
“We used to put signs on top of school roofs so that they could easily be recognized from the air,” Pope said.
Instead, they recommend emergency teams use computer geo-mapping systems to locate schools, Pope said.
Since Sandy Hook, there’s been much talk about how to prevent intruders from gaining entry to schools. Ironically, the Connecticut school had a new security system in place, but the shooter was still able to force his way into the building.
As Puyallup School Board member Chris Ihrig said: “Folks who are determined to get into an environment, they will find a way.”
He added that schools still need to work to prevent attacks.
The so-called “mantrap” systems that attempt to stop everyone entering a school at both an exterior and an interior door have gotten some buzz in Olympia. Pope said experts have questioned their effectiveness. Critics point out that they’re not foolproof, while supporters say they’re better than nothing.
The specific “mantrap” language has been removed from Dammeier’s bill as it moves through legislative committees.
But the bill has other provisions aimed at stopping intruders or bringing rapid assistance to schools when an emergency occurs.
The bill requires schools to install some kind of panic alarm system; a separate proposed capital budget for schools also contains $5.5 million to pay for the alarm systems statewide. The bill also urges districts to consider installing perimeter security systems on school campuses.
Another bill, SB 5620, would change the numbers and type of safety drills schools are required to conduct. Current law is skewed toward fire drills. But as Pope and others point out, fatal school shootings in recent years are much more common than fatal school fires.
That legislation would require schools to conduct at least four lockdown drills over the course of the school year, instead of just one, while lowering the number of fire drills required.
In Puyallup, schools recently installed an intercom system that can be activated in an emergency. The system sends messages, in a calm and reassuring voice, instructing students and staff members that a lockdown is in progress, and telling them to return to classrooms and secure the doors.
“It’s not jarring and loud like a fire drill,” Pope said. “But everyone can hear it.”
She said it’s important for schools to have audible signals so that everyone gets the message – even students outside on the playground or classrooms at the far end of a large campus.
She said schools must also think about empowering even the youngest students to react quickly and run for safety if necessary. It’s a message she’s trying to reinforce at monthly school safety meetings.
“Little ones will follow the rules, and wait for the teacher, do what the teacher says,” Pope said. “But what if there is no teacher?
“It’s sensitive stuff. But we have to start talking about it with kids.”
HOW ONE TOWN IS PREPARING
The Eatonville School District will host an emergency management meeting for the community.
When: Feb. 19, 7 p.m.
Where: Eatonville High School auditorium.
What: The meeting is one in a series designed to inform the community about a major emergency drill planned for a day in June at Eatonville Middle School. The actual date of the drill will be a surprise. This month’s meeting will include an overview of school hazard training from Pierce County, school lockdown information and a question-and-answer session.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635