• ST. LOUIS POST DISPATCH: Educators in St. Louis area ask what more can be done to prevent school shootings

    December 14, 2012 2:32 pm  • 

    Prevention of school violence has for a decade been an effort focused largely on the student. Intervening early with troubled students, the thinking goes, is the best way to keep schools safe.

    But the kind of attack that ripped through a Connecticut elementary school Friday was different. There, the shooter, according to police, was an adult intruder. And that scenario is sending shock waves through Missouri and Illinois educators.

    While schools in both states have adopted a host of prevention measures against outside intruders, some wonder what, if anything more, can be done to prevent such incidents.

    “You can lock the schools down to be like a prison, but we don’t want our schools to be like that and we can’t afford that,” said Paul Fennewald, special adviser to the Missouri Center for Education Safety, a public and private violence prevention coalition.

    Meanwhile, Friday’s tragedy once again placed educators in the sadly familiar role of how to handle children’s exposure to traumatic news. And for some middle and high schoolers, the matter is complicated with their access to smartphones and social media.

    Most elementary students continued with a normal school day without knowing of the shooting. But many schools sent messages to parents with tips on how to talk to their kids about the violence.

    Some schools will have counselors ready on Monday. Others took calls from parents anxious to get to their children and pull them out of school for the day. Schools reassured them their children were safe and suggested they keep a normal routine.

    “It’s so hard as teachers and parents, because you’re processing and then also helping kids through it,” said Ginger Cayce, spokeswoman for the Kirkwood School District.

    St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch ordered his officers to do extra patrols at elementary schools. St. Louis Police also engaged in such patrols. Fitch said he hoped the presence would calm fears of parents who worried about a copycat shooter, and said his department has had a longstanding relationship working to prepare schools for a shooting.

    At a school violence prevention conference in July, educators from across Missouri heard presentations that focused largely on the need to address bullying and student mental health.

    But Fennewald said that even as schools have concentrated on violence by students, so, too, have schools received training on intruder attacks.

    Fennewald, a former director of the Missouri Department of Homeland Security, said during his tenure from 2005 and 2011, the state spent $300,000 to $500,000 on “active shooter” training, which includes protocols to lock down schools.

    Brian Gard, Midwest director for the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials, said lock-down protocols are almost universal at schools. If shooting occurs, classroom doors are locked to slow down or deter the shooter.

    In addition, Gard said, schools have enacted “visitor controls,” which can include locked doors, limited entrys and added sign-in requirements.

    “Pretty consistently schools across the country are training down to the teacher level. It used to be just at the law at the enforcement level,” he said.

    But Gard said efforts can only go so far.

    “I think there’s always a balance between a safe school and a lock-down facility” he said. “We want to make sure that people feel comfortable at school and we want to accept visitors. But we want to make sure protocols are followed.”

    David E. Glenn Sr., commander of training for St. Louis Public Schools, said that in addition to security measures such as locked doors and metal detectors, the district conducts intruder drills throughout the year.

    “We’re doing to everything we can to prevent something like that from happening here. That’s why we train, train, train,” Glenn said Friday. “You can never be too safe.”

    Christine Byers and Matthew Franck of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

    How to talk to children about tragedy

    Violent events in public places, particularly schools, can shake a child's sense of security. The National Association of School Psychologists offers these tips for talking to your children:


    ·         Explain that their fears are understandable, but reassure them that schools are safe places.

    ·         Keep kids away from television reports on the tragedy.

    ·         Let children guide the conversation with their questions. Provide as much information as they seem to be seeking. Watch for hints that a child might want to talk, such as following a parent around. Some children will prefer to express their feelings through art projects, writing or playing music.

    ·         Go over safety procedures at school and home. Talk about who kids should seek out if they feel scared or threatened.

    ·         Watch for changes in behavior and eating and sleeping habits that might indicate a problem with a child's emotional health.

    ·         Don't change the child's normal routine, helping them maintain their sense of structure and safety.

    ·         Tell children it's OK to ask for help if they feel angry or depressed.