School officials review, strengthen security policies; some parents pull students

jwarren@herald-leader.com,bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 17, 2012 

Many Kentucky school officials reviewed and strengthened their security policies on Monday in light of last week's school shooting in Connecticut, even as a false rumor about possible violence frightened hundreds at Lexington's Henry Clay High School.

School safety experts had predicted that rumors would be a problem at schools this week in the wake of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and eight adults dead.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday sent out an e-mail Monday urging all school principals to double-check their security procedures, and listing resources that could help with security concerns. The Kentucky Center for School Safety and the Kentucky School Boards Association also sent schools security bulletins and other information.

Kentucky law requires all schools and school districts to have security plans, but does not specify what those plans should include.

Fayette School Superintendent Tom Shelton said he sent all Fayette principals copies of district security procedures over the weekend as a reminder.

"I was basically saying, 'here are our procedures, let's be sure we're following them,'" he explained.

Shelton said he thinks those procedures are followed most of the time.

"It's something that we may get a little lax on because we live in such a great community, and people tend to think that nothing like that could happen here," he said. "But I'm sure people at Sandy Hook felt the same way."

Lisa Deffendall, spokeswoman for the Fayette County Public Schools, said Shelton also asked the Fayette Schools' law enforcement officials to come up with a plan to expand their presence at schools. As a result, school and city police officers will be at schools, checking safety procedures and generally seeking to provide a soothing presence, she said.

"It's meant to be a reassuring presence, not to alarm anyone that something is wrong," Deffendall said.

Despite those efforts, there was alarm.

Shelton said the rumor at Henry Clay developed Monday morning, apparently as a result of students exchanging text messages about the false threat. School officials sent out emails and phoned parents about the rumor.

Still, dozens of students left with their parents Monday morning. By the end of the day, 850 students — roughly a third of Henry Clay's enrollment of almost 2,300 — either failed to go to school or were taken home by their parents as a result of the rumor, district officials said.

"Technology is a wonderful thing, and I'm usually a strong proponent of it," Shelton said afterward. "But it also can be a problem for us, as it was today with kids passing along rumors. It just kind of multiplied."

Other than Henry Clay, there did not appear to be any similar rumors in Fayette County or the surrounding area.

Elsewhere, some other Kentucky districts moved to answer security questions from parents and children, made counselors available if needed, and generally tried to keep families informed about school security as concerns stemming from the Connecticut shootings continued.

State Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Mount Sterling, said Monday that he wants the state to study whether it could put armed officers and metal detectors in all 1,245 Kentucky public schools to enhance security. Henderson wants to form a task force to look into the matter.

The Science Hill Independent Schools in Pulaski County locked the front door of its only school building for the first time Monday, and had a police officer stationed at the entrance. Superintendent Rick Walker said officials of the small district decided on the step over the weekend.

"Safety has to come first," Walker said.

Principals in the Garrard County Public Schools sent staffers a message Monday reminding them of security procedures, and Superintendent Donald Aldridge told teachers to watch students and refer them to counseling if they seemed anxious.

"This is one of those days when you have to take care of emotional issues before you get into teaching," Aldridge said. "That's one thing we want to make sure we're doing."

The Kentucky Center for School Safety recommends that state schools keep their front entrances locked and says that teachers should keep their classrooms locked at all times. But in a few smaller schools, visitors can still enter without being buzzed in.

Walker, the superintendent at Science Hill, said that as of Monday the front door of the district's one school will not only be locked, but visitors will have to call in advance to be admitted. Walker said he plans to install a security camera and buzzer system at the front door, and has talked with the school's architect about re-designing the entrance to further enhance security.

Beth Moore, safe-schools coordinator for the Jackson County Schools, said Monday that district administrators plan to meet over the holidays to review safety plans.

Most Jackson County schools require visitors to enter through a locked front door and then be admitted through a second door by an office staffer, Moore said. The middle school and one older elementary don't have that system, but the district is seeking bids to install it at the middle school, she said.

Scott Lewis, superintendent of the Ohio County Schools in Western Kentucky, said the district has required all its schools to be locked for several years. Nevertheless, he said the district had police officers visit its elementary schools on Monday to reassure students, staff and teachers.

Lewis said he received several calls from parents Monday asking what the district is doing to keep kids safe. Lewis said he's also heard some people in his area talking about arming principals. He said that is a sad thought, but he would not oppose it.

"I think it's probably a reflection of the times," Lewis said.

Aldridge, the Garrard superintendent, said he hopes parents can keep the security situation in perspective.

"Percentage-wise, despite these terrible shootings, school is still one of the safest places for your kids," he said. "That's what we have to keep reminding our parents."

Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford contributed to this story. Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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