Monticello district explains policies in wake of school shooting

Last Friday was a day of horror and despair as people around the nation and world learned of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Americans’ hearts, in the words of President Barack Obama, were broken as the tragic scene unfolded in what should be a haven of safety for children.
In Monticello, news of the shooting hit especially close to home for the school district’s teachers and faculty, who teach in what we widely consider a safe community, not unlike Newtown.
Could Pinewood or Little Mountain, or any of the district’s other schools, do anything different than Sandy Hook to make the school safe?
Sandy Hook Elementary had recently installed an entry system where doors were locked after 9:30 a.m. and people coming into the school need to be buzzed in by office staff.
Monticello schools do not have such a system, but in the end it didn’t help Sandy Hook: the shooter, Adam Lanza, simply shot through a glass partition next to the front door enough times to walk right in.
Monticello Superintendent Jim Johnson said the district’s elementary schools have only certain entry and exit points, with many school doors remaining locked.
The district also tries to have a physical presence at the main entrances of schools.
“For the most part – it’s not 100 percent all the time – we have people who are out front greeting people,” Johnson said, saying the visitors need to sign in and wear a visitor’s badge.
Little Mountain’s PTO helps to man a desk in the front entry, and Pinewood and middle school volunteers have a station just outside the office; the high school has the attendance office at the front door.
“We have a system where people need to come in and sign in; they need to have a reason for being there,” Johnson said.
“We try to track those people as they come into the building to make sure they get toward where they are supposed to be.”
Two school resource officers also help out at the school district, one housed out of the high school and one at the middle school, though Johnson said they do help in all the district’s buildings.
“Just our student population is over 4,000 kids – when you throw staff and everything into it we’re more like 4,500, so we’re like a small community in a lot of ways just among our schools,” Johnson said.
“We have those people as a resource to help us with different situations. Hopefully we would never need them in a crisis situation, but if we do they are familiar with our staff and our procedures as well.”
Once inside the building, Johnson said all staff is trained to be on the lookout for people who do not have a visitor’s badge and should be approaching them to get people checked in if they see people without a badge.
“All of the adults in our building, regardless of what role they play, have a role in helping make sure our kids are safe,” he said.
In the event of an emergency, Johnson said there are lockdown procedures in place, which are practiced multiple times during the school year to help get kids to safe places as quickly as possible.
As mentioned earlier, Sandy Hook Elementary had a locked entry system where visitors needed to buzz in. Sadly, in this case the entry system was not enough to deter Lanza, but could it keep kids safer in other instances?
The Monticello district does not have this type of locked entry, and Johnson said he feels the district’s security policies balance student safety with accessibility to the community’s schools.
“With the things we already do, I feel we reduce that likelihood about as much as we can,” he said.
One potential weakness to consider is the glass by the door, which alledgely gave Sandy Hook’s shooter easy access to the school.
Glass doors also enabled the Red Lake School’s shooter access to their high school in 2008, according to a report by NBC’s local nightly news. Though even bulletproof glass could eventually be penetrated, experts say it would slow down an attacker’s entry into the building.
The Hastings school district has put in some bulletproof glass at the cost of about $60 per door, according to the report.
However, it’s also critical to note that Lanza wasn’t the only person who broke glass to get in: police officers did the same thing as they rushed in to stop the carnage.
It likely wasn’t easy for many parents to send their children back to school Monday, with their sense of security shaken by Friday’s tragic events. Luckily, Pinewood Elementary co-principal Eric Olson said the students handled the day well.
“It was a very normal day, and that’s what we tried to make it,” Olson said.
Before school started, Olson said they gave the teachers some training and resources on what to do if students had questions or seemed to need additional support.
They had some suggested activities planned for teachers to do that did not mention the incident but brought up themes of love, helping one another and sharing good things about other people in the classroom, or having students talk about their feelings relating to all the recent snowfall.
The idea, he said, was that if certain students had the shooting weighing heavily on their minds it would show through in unrelated conversations like these.
Olson said each teacher had one or two questions or comments made by students about the shooting, but said nobody was found to need the individual attention of social workers to help cope.
On the parent end, Olson said he’s been answering questions and explaining safety protocols with any parent who has inquired. Parents throughout the district also received a letter home from Johnson.
Olson said he spent the entire day Monday standing right in the main entrance, greeting visitors and students as they went to and from the lunchroom or any of their specials such as art and physical education.
“I gave them big warm smiles and high-fives just to make sure they knew that we were all here,” he said, “not saying anything directly, but just really making them feel that it was such a safe, nurturing environment like it always is.”
In light of Friday’s tragedy, Johnson said the district has had all building administrators checking to make sure all procedures on the books are being followed. After that, he said he would be sitting down with the school board and administrators to go over what weaknesses there may be and suggestions for improvement.
“Our kids’ safety is front and center in our minds all the time,” Johnson said, “and so we continue to look at that and today is a reminder of why it has to be front and center for us. We try to do our best to make sure our kids are as safe and secure as they can be.”