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Published: Sunday, December 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

How schools have changed since tragedy in Newtown

EVERETT -- It could have happened at the mall. A soccer game. A bus stop.
The Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., left 26 innocent adults and children dead. Over the past year, local schools, police and emergency-management experts have worked together to bolster safety plans on campuses in Snohomish County.
That's not new. Safety plans have been the norm for more than a decade, and schools are safer than ever before, said Mary Schoenfeldt. She works in emergency management for the city of Everett, but she's also worked in school crisis response since the 1990s.
The difference now, she said, is people are more aware that the unthinkable can happen.
Before the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colo., Schoenfeldt was hired by the California state superintendent's office to develop an emergency response model for all schools in the state, she said. Her model also was adapted by the U.S. Department of Education. She still trains police and school administrators.
Though there had been some school shootings at the time, other safety issues, such as drunken-driving accidents, suicide attempts and natural disasters, were bigger concerns on campus, she said.
Schoenfeldt went to Littleton three times in the years after Columbine. She helped a school system in Louisiana rebuild and reopen after Hurricane Katrina. She also traveled to Newtown in January, just weeks after the shooting, to offer assistance to emergency responders and to the public. In a Newtown diner, she met a 7-year-old survivor whose best friend was killed, she said. The little boy had escaped out a window.
With each tragedy, people like Schoenfeldt have to look for what procedures were in place, what training had been done -- what saved lives.
Lessons have been learned, before and after Newtown, she said.
"Had that been 10 or 15 years ago, the number of victims could have been in the hundreds," she said.
Before Newtown, many schools already had implemented sign-in procedures for campus visitors, Schoenfeldt said. They'd narrowed access to keep better tabs on who is there and for what purpose. They'd installed intercom systems and instituted clearer directions, rather than code words, in emergencies. Most states also required lockdown drills in addition to fire drills, she said. School officials had security experts audit their physical campuses to look for weaknesses.
People have learned from each school tragedy. Thinking has evolved beyond telling people to hide under a desk, Schoenfeldt said. Training for students and teachers now emphasizes options: Run, hide or fight.
In 2003, the Legislature started paying to have all schools across the state mapped. Now, all emergency response agencies have access to those maps.
At the same time, kids still have to feel comfortable at school, Schoenfeldt said. Razor wire and metal detectors don't help anyone learn European geography.
"It's a balance between creating a safe place for students to learn and an armed fortress. School safety is that balance," she said.
Leaders in the Mukilteo School District are looking for the right mix between security, and welcoming parents and visitors.
"There are some who want us to lock down the buildings and make them into fortresses," Mukilteo schools spokesman Andy Muntz said. "On the other side, it's a public facility that should be open and friendly to people. We are trying to find something in the center that is both open and friendly and at the same time secure. There has been a lot of effort along these lines."
The push for safer schools is included in the district's $119 million construction bond proposal that voters will consider in February. Roughly $2 million would be spent on security cameras, building entrances and staff and visitor identification systems. School employees, for instance, could enter buildings using ID cards rather than keys.
Mukilteo also has seen results since a Snohomish County sheriff's deputy was assigned to routinely visit several schools that are outside of city limits.
In March, County Executive John Lovick, who was sheriff at the time, announced plans for a new school safety unit. The sheriff's office kept its school resource officers, but the new unit revised the ways that cops could look at schools.
A sheriff's sergeant and four deputies are assigned to serve more than 60 public and private schools in the county. The deputies work with each school to determine how much involvement is needed. Their beat includes safety plans, campus security weaknesses, student behavior issues, the occasional crime on campus, and being part of the school community.
The work has been rewarding, and the public's response has been positive, said the unit's leader, sheriff's Sgt. Scott Parker.
"We are more popular now than ever," he wrote in an email to The Herald last week. "(The) requests for student threat assessments, threat, risk and vulnerability assessments on their facilities, and mentoring activities are overwhelming and something that we are finding a hard time to keep up with."
New Sheriff Ty Trenary is committed to keeping the program going, said sheriff's spokeswoman Shari Ireton.
"The sheriff's focus is community first, so this aligns very closely with that," she said.
The experts say the sheriff's unit is just one example of ongoing efforts where schools and police have learned to work together -- something that didn't always happen in decades past. They're having conversations, such as how evacuations should go, who should contact whom during an emergency, where the paramedics will park.
In the Mukilteo district, the assigned school-safety deputy has been building a relationship with staff, Muntz said.
"He knows people," Muntz said. "He is a friendly person who has become familiar in the schools."
Parents are seeing more lockdowns at schools not because there are more threats, but because police are doing a better job notifying campuses of nearby crimes, Schoenfeldt said.
In Everett, schools have been able to use more modified, or less restrictive, lockdowns based on the information they receive, police spokesman Aaron Snell said.
"We are working closer with schools to notify them of incidents that occur within the community that may affect them," he said. "For example, if a situation involves a weapon or violence near a school, or when the possibility of violence is higher, we try to notify the school so they can make an educated decision of whether to lock down."
A safety focus also can be seen in recent school construction projects in the Everett School District.
The goal with new construction and remodeling projects is to make the main office front and center, so "you go into the office before you go into the school," Everett School District spokeswoman Mary Waggoner said. "It's pretty much a standard design for schools today."
At Monroe Elementary School in Everett, for instance, visitors enter into a foyer where they are seen by front office staff, who will ask them to sign in before they can enter a locked door to the main campus.
Everett schools also have emergency buttons that can lock all doors to the outside at the same time. The district is looking to add digital cameras that record in real time and retain footage for 30 days. The district is trying them out at its new headquarters before expanding the technology to schools. The district's February bond construction measure includes money to upgrade front-office security at Hawthorne, Jackson, Lowell and Madison elementary schools.
The campaign to make schools safer is waged on many levels, from classrooms to state capitols, and must focus on intruders as well as on students.
"It's not just some tragic event like Columbine or Sandy Hook," said Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction office. "It's more localized. It's about bullying and harassment, too. It's our duty to make sure every child feels safe because you can't educate children if they don't feel safe."
What parents can do
The school-safety experts say:
• Support your child's school's safety procedures, such as signing in at the front office, when you visit. Know the school's plans to reunite families in case of a major event. Every school should have a plan.
• Talk to your kids about emergencies and what they've been told at school. Quiz them after drills and ask what they learned.
• Communities often are flooded with gifts after a tragedy. Consider giving to local charities throughout the year.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449, rking@heraldnet.com.

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