Kentucky schools' response to Sandy Hook slayings is increased training

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comDecember 12, 2013 

  • CONCERT FOR PEACE

    A string concert with dance on Friday by Bluegrass SCAPA called Concert for Peace will feature 26 angels created by visual art students, representing the teachers and students who died at Sandy Hook Elementary last December. The SCAPA Bluegrass concert will join orchestras nationwide to pay tribute to those who died. The local concert will have two performances, at 6 and 8 p.m. Friday at the Downtown Arts Center at 141 East Main Street in Lexington. Tickets are available at the door and a minimum donation of $5 is suggested. For information, call Margo Buchanan at (859) 381-3332, ext. 1102.

The year since 20 children and six adults were shot to death Dec. 14, 2012, at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary has brought changes to Kentucky schools:

■ More schools are asking for staff training, which can include police firing blanks from an M16 or AK-47 and teachers running to hide or fighting a role-playing attacker.

■ At Lexington Catholic High School, where staff plan to take training next month, there is a new, second set of doors at the main entrance that is locked all day and require visitors to be buzzed in.

■ Kentucky passed new laws for public schools requiring revisions of emergency management plans, consultations with first responders and specific time frames for student drills.

Awareness is heightened any time there is a school shooting, but Sandy Hook had a particular impact, Lexington Catholic High School Principal Sally Stevens said.

"It was the Christmas season. It was little kids ... all of us need to be aware that it could be anywhere at any school at any time," Stevens said.

Kentucky schools had a "very significant" response to Sandy Hook, said Jon Akers, director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety. "We picked up lessons learned from the situation and did all we could to enhance emergency management training in the schools."

The Kentucky Center for School Safety provided information to educators in the days following Sandy Hook and advocated legislative reform regarding school-based emergency management planning.

Akers said that in the hours after Sandy Hook, districts drafted a letter to parents about their school's security measures and visitor check-in policies and provided suggestions on how to talk to students about the tragedy.

Many school districts already had an emergency drill program in place after Kentucky had two high-profile school shootings in the 1990s:

■ In January 1993 at East Carter High School in Grayson, Gary Scott Pennington, 17, fatally shot a teacher and custodian and briefly held students hostage before surrendering.

■ In December 1997, Michael Carneal, 14, opened fire on a prayer group at Heath High School in West Paducah, killing three and injuring five.

But after Sandy Hook, Kentucky school districts were charged with developing even more comprehensive emergency response plans with an "all-hazards" approach.

That meant reviewing policies to address school shooters, severe weather, earthquakes, hazardous materials spills, assaults, drug and alcohol use, and the death of a student or staff member, Akers said.

He said the 2013 Kentucky General Assembly passed new laws, which went into effect June 25, requiring that each school review and revise its emergency management plan in cooperation with its first responders and then train the faculty and staff on the plan.

Fire, lockdown, severe weather and earthquake drills must be practiced within the first 30 days of each school year, then again in January.

Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer created a Safe Schools Committee shortly after Sandy Hook.

KSP launched a statewide Active Shooter Survival Training Program and has trained about 1,000 people so far, said KSP Lt. Brent White.

Firing blanks from an AK-47 is not for a "shock and awe effect," said White, but to let school staff differentiate sounds: "Is a car backfiring in the parking lot, or is somebody popping popcorn, or is that a door that just slammed, or is that somebody that just entered a school firing a weapon"?

If staff quickly determine that the sounds are gunfire, they can be more proactive, White said.

Before Sandy Hook, staff at most schools were told to hide or secure a door. Now, White said, staff members are told that depending upon the situation they could also run, hide or fight the attacker. Students are not present at the trainings, but many schools have subsequent lockdown drills.

Kentucky State Police offers at no charge to schools varying levels of help that can include on-site visits to review their emergency plans, building security and lock-down drills. A pilot program began at test school sites this summer.

Kentucky State Police Capt. James Stephens said he has worked with local law enforcement agencies to train school staff across the state, including Wolfe, Fleming and Anderson counties.

School staff are taught to get in a safe location if an attack occurs, Stephens said. But if the known safe location becomes compromised, the next step for staff can be to fight or escape.

Before Sandy Hook, Stephens said, there were pockets of training being provided across the state. Now, state police and local law enforcement are working to make sure the same training is being offered statewide.

"We're not going to prevent 100 percent of these acts," Stephens said. "If we can't prevent it, how are we going to mitigate the results? The key to that is training."

Lexington police are helping with the training at Lexington Catholic, said Stevens, the principal. She has learned there are no concrete rules that cover all situations. "We have to think on our feet," she said.

Aside from making some minor adjustment to comply with the new state laws, Fayette County did not have to make significant changes because the district already had locked-door policies and other proactive procedures, said spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall.

Matt Moore, Jessamine County deputy superintendent, said that district was conducting safety training before Sandy Hook. But he said, "Sandy Hook has caused us to look at the material we were covering and make some adjustments on that."

The active shooter training, Moore said, "was an eye opener for employees. You could actually follow a police officer going through and clearing rooms, you could actually follow the intruder and see how the intruder may respond."

"It helped us gain a perspective and an appreciation for our vulnerabilities as well as some next steps that we need to take," Moore said.

Shelia Tate, a member of Lexington Catholic's Parent Action Corps, said she appreciates that the school is taking "steps to keep our kids as safe as they can."

"It seems like it's scary for the kids but ... they have to do it. It's like a fire drill, you don't want to think that there may be a fire but they have to be prepared, because in this day and age it just keeps happening," Tate said.

Threats against schoolchildren are taken seriously, Akers said.

An 18-year-old was recently arrested in Bullitt County on terroristic threatening charges after being accused of threatening to kill children at Old Mill Elementary School, according to news reports.

"Every principal, teacher and law enforcement officer takes any level of threat extremely seriously and will very aggressively investigate each and every reported threat or rumor," he said.


CONCERT FOR PEACE

A string concert with dance on Friday by Bluegrass SCAPA called Concert for Peace will feature 26 angels created by visual art students, representing the teachers and students who died at Sandy Hook Elementary last December. The SCAPA Bluegrass concert will join orchestras nationwide to pay tribute to those who died. The local concert will have two performances, at 6 and 8 p.m. Friday at the Downtown Arts Center at 141 East Main Street in Lexington. Tickets are available at the door and a minimum donation of $5 is suggested. For information, call Margo Buchanan at (859) 381-3332, ext. 1102.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter:@vhspears

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