Centre County school officials review plans in wake of deadly Conn. shooting

cminemye@centredaily.comDecember 14, 2012 

The unthinkable school shooting Friday in Connecticut had local education professionals dealing with their own shock, reviewing their safety procedures and attempting to reassure parents that their children’s safety is the foremost concern.

A gunman took the lives of 27 people, including 20 children, Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before shooting himself.

The news hit home at schools across Centre County, where teachers and administrators were watching their worst nightmares played out in breaking news reports from Connecticut.

“We’re all horrified by the event,” said Michelle Saylor, assistant superintendent at Bellefonte Area School District. “It’s impossible not to feel sadness, and anxiety.”

Saylor said Bellefonte administrators met Friday with building principals, who in turn met with their staffs, to review the district’s crisis plan, check safety protocols and increase both security and visibility around district properties.

“It’s sad, and so senseless,” Saylor said. “Communities do need to know that schools are doing everything they can to keep their children safe. Parents have a right to know that. And we are.”

State College Area School District Superintendent Robert O’Donnell reached out Friday to district families and staff concerning safety measures at the district and to help individuals cope with the tragedy.

O’Donnell spoke Friday with State College police and said he will meet Monday with officers from other departments that operate within the district to review safety procedures. State College has police officers patrolling its two middle and two high schools full time.

“It’s an ongoing process, and we are continuing to review what we do to protect the children of our district, and to make sure their families know we’ll be taking care of those children when they put them on the bus in the morning,” he said.

The father of three young children, O’Donnell said the Connecticut shootings touched him deeply.

“I can’t comprehend it. Why did this happen?” he said. “I can’t imagine what those families are feeling. I feel for them all and I’ll be praying for them.”

At Bald Eagle Area, Superintendent Daniel Fisher listed numerous steps taken to protect those who work and learn in the district’s buildings, from locking all doors and installing video cameras at entrances to requiring all visitors to identify themselves before gaining admission.

Still, Fisher noted sadly, “Schools are not fortresses.”

Fisher said the Connecticut tragedy will force many schools, including his own, to re-evaluate security measures.

“It is tragic, horrific,” Fisher said. “If someone is able to get into the building with dangerous intent, by the time it gets stopped, a lot of bad things can happen.”

Attempts to reach Penns Valley school officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Susan McGee was a schoolteacher for decades before she became a member of the Philipsburg-Osceola Area school board. She watched coverage of Friday’s shootings as someone who has seen school district approaches to safety change over the years.

“Obviously, you’re completely horrified by this,” McGee said. “Before I stopped teaching, we had begun to do all we could to make children safe.”

McGee recalled a time when North Lincoln Hill Elementary’s doors were never locked, and staff propped them open to let air circulate when it got warm. That changed after the 1999 Columbine, Colo., shootings as the district made a move toward securing entrances.

“We went through drills, did all we could, but this still happens,” she said. “I’m sure this school did all of that, too.

“I’m very frightened this will come to the point that we have to have a security person at every building, like the airport. That’s awful to think of, but it doesn’t matter when it’s your children. They have to be safe.”

P-O’s schools all have door buzzers, camera systems and automated locks.

Anyone without the electronic fobs that open the doors has to be identified and buzzed in. But in a situation such as what happened Friday, with a known person requesting access, would that have worked?

McGee said she could see schools with similar measures tightening security in the future.

“It might have to be a person there, or a metal detector,” she said.

P-O Superintendent Stephen Benson released the district’s official response to the shooting: “Our hearts go out to the victims of this terrible tragedy and their families. The thoughts of our P-O community are with the students, parents and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary and the people of Newtown, Connecticut.”

At Bellefonte, Saylor said while “safety is always on everyone’s mind,” the level of anxiety has grown in recent years because such incidents seem more common — from Columbine to Virginia Tech in 2007, from a gathering of elected officials in Arizona in 2011 to a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012.

On Tuesday, a gunman killed two people and wounded another before taking his own life at a crowded shopping mall in Oregon.

“I was talking with a colleague today, and we both said it feels like the frequency is increasing,” Saylor said.

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