• Local schools have parent alerts, security measures in place

    In Education

    4:01 pm on Fri, 12.14.12

    Updated at 4:55 pm on Fri, 12.14.12

    This morning’s horrific shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. has local parents and school officials thinking about school safety.

    Twenty-seven people, including 20 young children and the shooter, are reported to be dead in the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy. Parents there were quickly informed of the shooting by an automatic phone call.

    Almost all St. Louis-area school districts including St. Louis Public Schools, Parkway and Kirkwood have similar auto-call systems in place, according to Dave Kuschel of Cooperating School Districts.

    “It’s very common these days. They’re very useful for emergencies as well as non-emergencies,” Kuschel said.

    Auto-calling and social media

    Auto-call alerts have became standard in most schools in the past five or so years, prompted by ever-improving technology, and in some cases, in response to previous acts of violence across the country.

    The systems typically contain the phone numbers of every parent, guardian and emergency contact of each child.

    “We have 75,000 numbers in our system for 27,000 children,” said Patrick Wallace of the SLPS communications office.

    When schools need to disseminate information, they simply activate the system or ask that their district do so, according to Cathy Kelly, communications coordinator for Parkway.

    “It’s automatic; if you have a kid in Parkway, you get a call,” Kelly said. “The most frequent time we use it is for snow days or early dismissals, or if there's a water main break or an electricity outage.”

    “We use it to remind parents of student-teacher conferences and PTO meetings,” Wallace said.

    Parkway and SLPS parents can also opt-in to a text message alert system. Many schools also Tweet or post messages to their Facebook pages, but parents must “follow” the school on Twitter or “like” or join its Facebook page to get that information.

    Metal detectors, police officers

    Neither SLPS, Parkway nor Kirkwood districts has metal detectors in their elementary schools. The SLSP district does have them in place in the middle and high schools.

    All SLPS schools, including elementary schools, are locked and have a single entry point. All those who wish to enter must be buzzed in.

    “We have camera to see who’s coming in and out,” Wallace said.

    The city school district has a security force of 125 officers, with one or more stationed all day at each middle and high school. One officer from a roving team drops in on each elementary school every day.

    Tragedies like today’s shooting are a reminder to make sure no safety measure is overlooked, Wallace said.

    “Any time something like this happens, everyone takes stock of what they’re doing and what they have,” Wallace said. “Obviously, we want to to do anything we can to to keep something like this from happening.”

    Each Parkway middle and high school also has an officer from its particular municipal force on the premises every day. Middle school officers sometimes visit their nearby elementary school.

    Police officers are in place in Kirkwood’s middle schools and its high school at various times during the day. Kirkwood elementary and middle schools also have single-entry buzz-in systems.

    Helping children understand

    In a letter to parents that went out today, Kirkwood superintendent of schools Tom Williams addressed the impact of today’s Connecticut shooting on children here.

    “It is important to be supportive by letting children ask questions and providing factual information geared toward your child's age and developmental level,” the letter read. “It is also important to limit the amount of news coverage children are exposed to about the tragic event.”

    Start of update: The amount of information parents give their children also depends on how much and what kind of information has been discussed before, according to local child psychiatrist Moisy Shopper, who worked with children for 45 years.

    If a child is worried about violence occurring at their school, parents should not tell the child that it can't happen, Shopper said.

    "That statement is so blanket as to be unbelievable," Shopper said.

    Instead, parents should tell their children only what is true, such as:

    "I'll take the best care of you and the school will take the best care of you," Shopper said. "We know things happen and we will make every effort to keep you safe."

    If children are afraid to return to school, it may be helpful for parents to drive them instead of letting them walk and take them to the teacher or someone in charge instead of dropping them off.

    "Probably in most communities, they'll have a policeman at the school -- that would be nice," Shopper said. "Or some symbol of authority that says, 'We watch carefully who comes into our schools.'"

    In fact, elementary schools within unincorporated St. Louis County did have extra patrols this afternoon. That will continue Monday and for an unspecified amount of time, according to County Police spokesman Randy Vaughn.

    Today's incident in no way increases the prospect of danger here, Vaughn stressed. But as a matter of reassurance, officers have been told that patrolling schools is top priority for any officer with an elementary school in his or her beat.

    "That means, if you are not on call or doing an investigation or finishing up something that's a top priority, you need to be at the school," Vaughn said.