It’s been just over two months, but the ripples from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting already are reaching the daily workings of some Johnson County schools.
Take a routine trip to the bathroom, for example. Shawnee Mission district students can still get permission for a break, of course. But when they return, they may find themselves knocking on their locked classroom door for someone to let them back in.
Locked classroom doors; increased safety drills; newer, more secure front entrances — these are the changes that school districts are making in an effort to protect students from the type of violence that happened Dec. 14 in Connecticut when a gunman shot his way through a locked door and rushed into an elementary school building, killing 20 children and six educators.
In the aftermath, schools throughout the area have struggled with how to keep everyone safe while at the same time having a warm and welcoming place to learn.
The Shawnee Mission School District wasn’t the only one to consider locking classroom doors. The Kansas State Fire Marshal’s office received over 100 calls in the days after Sandy Hook from districts wanting to know if they could lock those doors and still be within the fire code.
Brenda McNorton, chief of the office’s fire prevention division, said schools were told that locked doors are permissible as long as students can easily get out from the inside in case of fire. The fire marshal’s office put out a list of door handle and lock types that students could operate without a key or special procedure, she said. “You should be able to walk up, pull the handle and you’re out.”
Individual schools are still working on the logistics of locked classroom doors, which are now the policy in the Shawnee Mission district. At Roesland Elementary, which has 370 kindergarten through sixth-graders in Roeland Park, the staff is working out the details, said Principal Mark Kelly.
“We have a lot of support people who go classroom to classroom. Paras, aides, reading teachers. There is a lot of activity. You don’t want the teacher to stop teaching every time,” Kelly said. “I’m still learning to walk with a key in my hand.”
Most of the time, he said, a student will be designated to get the door so teaching doesn’t have to come to a halt.
The new emphasis on locked doors also will mean some changes at Rising Star Elementary in Lenexa, which has a more open floor plan in which some classes lack doors, said Leigh Anne Neal, district spokeswoman. Some doors will have to be installed on rooms that don’t have them, she said.
So far, other districts have considered locking classroom doors but have not made them a policy.
Locking classrooms isn’t the only way security has been stepped up. Blue Valley schools have fast-tracked construction on eight schools to provide more secure entrances. The “pinch point” access reconfigures the front entrances of those schools so visitors must go through the office to enter the school. All other doors would be locked once the students or staff are in for the day. Additional monitors and door-ajar chimes also will be added.
The $18.6 million construction project had already been approved in a bond election last year, but work was to have been spread out over six years, said Mike Slagle, assistant superintendent at Blue Valley. Now all of the schools that don’t already have that type of entrance will get the work done by 2014.
Changes in front entrances will take more time for school districts that don’t already have approval from the voters. The Olathe School District has that type of entrance at middle schools and high schools, but not so much in elementary schools, said assistant superintendent Erin Dugan. However, the elementary schools already require anyone entering to show an ID and be buzzed in, she said. The district is discussing the possibility of front entrance work in 22 of its school buildings.
The Shawnee Mission district has that type of entrance at its newer schools, Neal said. However, there is no bond issue currently under discussion.
Every Johnson County district is reviewing and stepping up safety measures that are already in place. Safety lockdown drills, once done two or three times a year, are now a monthly occurrence in most schools. When added to monthly fire drills and periodic tornado drills, that can bring the total number of disaster practices to two or three per month. But officials say more frequent drills are necessary so students and staff can get an idea of what they need to do at any time of the day. Traveling staff also will be able to learn the routine in different schools.
Shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting, some schools and gun advocates across the country suggested firearms for teachers and office personnel or armed guards on the premises. However, that is not a measure being vigorously pursued by Johnson County districts. Most schools already have an armed police officer at least part of the time, they said.
District officials are looking to law enforcement for guidance on security measures. Some 200 school and law enforcement leaders from Johnson and Miami counties are just beginning the Defense of Our Schools Summit, a task force to brainstorm ideas on how to improve safety. The members hope to have their recommendations completed by the beginning of summer, said Overland Park Police Chief John Douglass, who is spearheading the effort.
“There is a sense of urgency to this. This isn’t a problem we can hold back and study for a long time,” he said.
Twenty years ago, a parent could just walk in to a building and deliver a forgotten lunch, said Kelly of Roesland Elementary. “Slowly but surely, as things have happened, we’ve locked ourselves in. Certainly we try to be as much of a family and as responsive as we can be. But no one disputes that we need to do something.”