Fayette, state school officials assure parents that they prepare for violent events

jkegley@herald-leader.comDecember 14, 2012 

Chris Townsend, director of law enforcement for Fayette County schools: "We always err on the side of caution ..."

Following the 1999 school shootings in Columbine, Colo., school districts across the country — including Fayette County's — began preparing for violent outbreaks the way they have practiced fire drills and tornado drills for decades.

The aftermath of Columbine "is when everyone came to attention that we need to have policies, plans and procedures in place and we need to practice and train for those events," said Chris Townsend, director of law enforcement at Fayette County Public Schools.

In light of Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., school officials assured parents that Fayette County schools are as safe as they can be thanks to twice-yearly lockdown drills and other safety procedures.

"I believe we have very safe schools, and we have very strong procedures," superintendent Tom Shelton said.

However, officials will continue to research safety protocols and train for violent incidents in light of Friday's shooting, in which 20 elementary school students and six adults were killed.

"We assess safety on a regular basis anyway, but this is a new story and a new situation," Shelton said. "We have to look at 'How would we have been prepared?'"

Preparation is key to averting disaster, officials said.

At least twice a year, Fayette County elementary through high-school students participate in surprise lockdown drills, Townsend said Friday. The goal is to instill safety tactics in the minds of the district's approximately 38,000 students so they will know subconsciously how to react.

"When you're under stress, it's hard to think, it's hard to be rational," Townsend said.

Though Fayette County schools have not had a major school shooting, officials typically institute several lockdowns per year whenever there is a shooter on the loose or threat of violence anywhere near a school, he said.

"We always err on the side of caution, so if there's any hesitation, any doubt, we will go into a lockdown," Townsend said. "If it wasn't worth it, so be it. It was good practice."

Townsend would not go into detail about what students and staff are trained to do, but he said he was confident that all know their roles during lockdowns.

Aside from training, other safety procedures are in place, officials said.

All but one door are locked throughout the day, and visitors to all Fayette County schools must be "buzzed in." Visitors are routed through a main office to limit their wandering unsupervised, officials said.

Fayette County is ahead of the game in that regard. Jon Akers, who directs the Kentucky Center for School Safety at Eastern Kentucky University, said the center recommends that practice — called "perpetual perimeter lockdown" — but it's up to each school district to put it in place.

In Fayette County, law enforcement officers are staffed in each of five sectors in the school district, and the officers work closely with Lexington police, Townsend said.

Law enforcement officials will be involved with the review of local safety policies in light of the Connecticut shooting, he added.

"There will probably be things that come out of this they'll identify later on — better ways to do things," Townsend said. "If there are, we'll make the proper changes."

At the state level, officials said they will research the shooting and recommend policies to every Kentucky school, Akers said.

Every school in Kentucky already has a safety plan in place, he said.

However, "the sad fact is that anyone with enough firepower can break into anything," Akers said. "But I think our schools are getting safer every year because we're always learning new things to improve security."

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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