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After Newtown Tragedy, Some Schools Are All But Bulletproof

Dara Van Antwerp, an armed school resource officer, will be permanently stationed at Panther Run Elementary School in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Across the country, schools have increased security after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., last year.
Wilfredo Lee
Dara Van Antwerp, an armed school resource officer, will be permanently stationed at Panther Run Elementary School in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Across the country, schools have increased security after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., last year.

As parents send their kids off to school this fall, many are wondering what's been done since last year to make sure they're safe.

Many schools have embraced new security measures since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, from uniformed police on hallway patrol to shatterproof laminated windows.

'How Could This Have Happened?'

Bob Gay of Newtown, Conn., has a tattoo on his arm of his daughter Josephine's footprints as a baby and the number "2560," for the number of days she was alive.

"Joey," as her parents call her, was one of the 20 children killed in the shootings at Sandy Hook. Her mother, Michele Gay, was a second grade teacher at the time of the Columbine shooting, and she remembers questioning how she would respond if something like that happened in her classroom.

On Dec. 14, Michele Gay stood in the firehouse next door to Sandy Hook Elementary, waiting for her daughter's class to appear.

She says, "I kept hearing that over and over, 'How could this have happened? Isn't there security? How could somebody get in the building?' And I remember thinking at that point, 'Oh God, you know, there really wasn't anything to stop anybody but our locked front door.' "

After Joey's death, the Gays joined with other parents of Sandy Hook victims to found Safe and Sound, a nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging communities to think about school security and take steps to protect kids. They plan to offer tools on their website to help empower school officials and parents to make schools safer.

Mental Health First Aid Training

Around the country, there's a range of things schools are doing to try to meet that goal. Some districts have trained teachers and school staff to carry guns in case of a school shooter. Others are adding uniformed police to patrol the halls.

"Our training calendar probably anywhere from doubled to tripled since Jan. 1 until right about now, in comparison to years past," says Kevin Quinn, who is head of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Quinn estimates there are about 7,000 school resource officers around the country. And it's not just the uniformed police who are getting training.

"If you turn the page and you look at mental health first aid for youth in crisis, that is very much about how you intervene in specific crisis situations," said clinical social worker Dawn Roy to a classroom of security personnel. Roy trains nearly 40 school security guards in Stamford, Conn., in "mental health first aid." Since January, about 4,500 people across the country have been trained in mental health first aid for children.

Districts are also looking at how to harden the infrastructure of their schools.

"The weak link of any security system has always been the glass," says Jim Chandler, who runs Armor Solutions, a small business in Connecticut that sells a transparent laminate for windows.

A single layer of the laminate usually can't stop a bullet, but it can keep the window from shattering, possibly preventing someone from getting through, as the shooter did in Newtown. In addition to shoring up windows, schools around the country were busy over the summer doing things like installing new locks on classroom doors.

'Take Action In Your Own School'

In June, the federal government released guidelines intended to help schools plan for emergency situations, but it didn't provide funding for school security improvements. In fact, a number of federally supported school security programs have been cut in recent years. A plan to provide funding was included in the legislative package that focused primarily on guns.

"School security issues have been couched in gun control versus gun right debates," says Ken Trump, who heads the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services. "And the bottom line is that there's nothing coming out of Congress or the administration to help security on the front lines of our schools."

Sandy Hook parent Bob Gay says people are fooling themselves if they think shootings like the one that took his daughter won't happen again.

"I think if they wait for already overburdened state or local or federal governments to do something about the problem in a meaningful way, it's not going to happen," he says. "[You've] got to take action in your own school."

Around the country, parents and school districts are considering strategies and looking for the budgets to do just that.

Copyright 2013 WSHU

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.