Orchard Park Police Lt. Patrick Fitzgerald used to see teachers grading papers in the back of the room during presentations on school security. It was, after all, a quiet, suburban school district.
That doesn’t happen anymore.
“Sandy Hook was, in certain ways, a real shock to Americans because of the viciousness of the attack on such young kids,” Fitzgerald said. “You think of teenagers being shot and killed, and it’s shocking to the consciousness, but to think that someone could go into an elementary school and gun down kindergartners, that takes the most rugged individual and kind of rocks them on their heels a little bit.”
Local school districts have been focused on security and crisis planning since 13 people were killed by two teenage gunmen in Colorado’s Columbine High School. But in the year since 20 first-graders and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., schools have seen a new wave of security efforts.
Some districts, such as East Aurora and Sweet Home, have asked voters for more money to rebuild school entrances and add new security equipment.
Other districts, including Orchard Park, Clarence and many others, have run “active shooter” scenarios to test their responses to the worst-case security breach. Still others, including some schools in Cheektowaga, are teaching staff that, if all else fails, they might have to fight back.
“No one could really fathom Columbine, and no one could really fathom Sandy Hook,” Williamsville Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff said. “But now that they’ve happened, it raises the level of concern for not just our high schools, but now our elementary schools, as well.”
Cheektowaga Police Lt. Brian Coons, who coordinates the town’s active shooter drills, said each new mass shooting has brought new lessons that police departments have incorporated into training. The department is working with Maryvale schools to teach staff to plan what they would do in an emergency situation. That includes knowing to “run, hide, fight” – an active shooter training scenario in which people are taught first to run or hide but then to fight back if need be.
“If they’re in a room that can’t be locked and all of a sudden someone’s coming in that room without the special protocols that we have, then they know to pick up a stapler, pick up a chair or whatever they have to do,” Coons said. “Because if it’s the shooter, they could be in the fight for their lives.”
The Cheektowaga Police Department is also working with firefighters and emergency medical service personnel to change the way they respond to a shooting crisis. They used to be trained to wait until a building was searched and cleared of potential shooters before they entered to help victims. But sometimes the injured lives were at stake while the buildings were being secured.
Now, police are taught to secure hallways and stairwells and then escort firefighters into safe areas to treat victims as soon as possible.
Aside from increased training, school districts across the region have made physical changes to their buildings since Sandy Hook. In Depew, for example, the school district reconfigured its parent drop-off loop at the elementary school to better keep track of how adults were entering the building. An elementary school in Maryvale is testing hardware that swipes the licenses of visitors to identify potential problems.
In Williamsville, the district is installing 185 cameras in school buildings and has added an identification card entry system for employees so that exterior doors can be locked during the school day. The district is also in discussions with the Amherst Police Department over the assignment of a school liaison officer who would occasionally check in with principals.
“I don’t see us getting to the point where we have a full-time police officer in every school,” Martzloff said. “It’s a balancing act. After Sandy Hook took place, I received feedback from parents, everything from ‘keep things exactly the way they are’ to ‘create an impenetrable fortress with bulletproof glass on every window,’ and everything in between. We’ve tried to take a reasonable, thoughtful approach to incrementally increasing school security.”
Amanda Nickerson, an expert on school crisis prevention and intervention and the director of the University at Buffalo Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, said school districts have to look beyond physical security upgrades such as cameras and locked doors.
She urges schools to also focus on ensuring that the human connections are in place among students and teachers to identify someone who needs help.
“I’m always astounded as we are cutting mental health staff and social workers and school psychologists and others, and then we’re going to spend money on hard-wired security,” Nickerson said. “I’m not saying that those things aren’t important, but at the end of the day, if we look at the thwarted school shootings, that’s almost always that somebody identified that there was a threat that was made, and they got the help that was needed.”
For some districts, adding staff members for crisis prevention means bringing back school resource officers that were lost to budget cuts. Five school districts – Iroquois, Alden, Springville-Griffith, North Collins and Holland – received state funding to share a school resource officer this school year.
“Those personal relationships are huge,” said Fitzgerald, who is a school resource officer in Orchard Park. “The goal of the school resource officer is to not only be in that school as a resource, but for them to establish a relationship and not just be someone in uniform that’s there to lock them up.”
Sandy Hook brought another change to school properties throughout the state. New gun-control legislation pushed through this year increased the charge for possession of a firearm on school grounds from a misdemeanor to a felony. So far, 21 people have been charged under the new provision, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The new law also created a safety improvement team to review school crisis plans and made some additional funds available for security upgrades.
Still, experts like Nickerson say schools are safe. The chances of dying in a homicide in a school are one in 2.5 million, she said.
“Our schools are, by and large, safe, at least from these really horrific shootings and things like that,” Nickerson said.
The danger, however slim, does exist and should be addressed.
“A lot of our prevention needs to be about human interaction,” she said, “and how we relate to each other and that people are connected enough to identify someone who may need help and get them the help that’s needed.”