SPECIAL REPORT: School Security Post-Sandy Hook

By: Shannon Kantner Email
By: Shannon Kantner Email
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"It doesn't matter if you're in a large school or a small school,  it could happen here. Until we really wake up and smell the coffee and know that it could happen in our classroom to our students to our children, we're subject to being attacked."

Terrance Jungel  - Executive Director of the Michigan Sheriffs' Association

There's a certain charm about small towns like Williamston, with tree-lined streets and a strong sense of safety.

"In Williamston, people feel very comfortable and they like to have doors open and so forth," St. Mary's Elementary School Principal Suzanne Penn said.

The same thing can be said about the atmosphere inside the schools, like St. Mary's, where pre-schoolers through fifth graders spend their days.

"We have a nice, real tight knit little school community. We all know each other," St. Mary's teacher Carol Preston said.

That makes it easy to spot strangers and makes for a very comfortable learning environment, very similar to what the community in Newtown felt. But law enforcement say it's also easy to grow too comfortable.

"It doesn't matter if you're in a large school or a small school, it could happen here," Executive Director of the Michigan Sheriffs' Association Terrance Jungel said. "Until we really wake up and smell the coffee and know that it could happen in our classroom to our students to our children, we're subject to being attacked."

That's the mentality in a post-Sandy Hook world. Local law enforcement's tactics have changed in light of school shooting tragedies. Instead of creating a perimeter and waiting for a SWAT team, now it's rapid response and all hands on deck. They're also are working hand-in-hand with school districts to devise emergency plans.

"We train officers from a three-county area: Ingham, Eaton, and Clinton Counties," Ingham County Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth said. "So, if we had a disaster at a school and we need an outside resources, they all respond the same. They all know how to react. So, we're working on that all the time.

Many schools are also working on their own security all the time. St. Mary's knew they needed to make some changes. So, they started by putting new locks on the doors and making it more difficult for visitors to enter the building.

"We're all kind of learning to lock the door, and I, myself have to worry about that every day," Penn said. "Did I lock the door, is it closed, and that kind of thing? Because you want to be able to react the instant something happens."

But, is it enough?

"Realistically speaking, there's only so much any school can do," Penn said.

Her staff agreed.

"Things can happen anywhere," Preston said.

With that in mind, new legislation would require all K-12 schools in the state to practice three lockdown drills a year, and then make a record of those on the school's website. There are also new school safety products being developed that promise to keep classrooms secure no matter what.

Rob Couturier established the Lockdown Company in Okemos, and invented "The Boot."

"It's classroom security device that can be deployed in seconds, and it makes the classrooms pretty much impenetrable for any intruders out in the schools," Couturier said.

The device just slips into the floor. A teacher or student can do it in seconds, and 75 school districts in Michigan have already purchased the boot at $230 dollars per door.

"If we had this at Sandy Hook, it would have saved everyone one of those children," Couturier said. "As soon as you can get to the door and shut it, it's locked."

But if you can't make it to the door, a military armor company in Maryland has another solution: a bulletproof whiteboard.

"It's closing the gap, it's that last 15 feet that become extremely difficult for anyone to cover when someone has a gun," Hardwire LLC CEO George Tunis III said.

The bulletproof shield weighs less than 4 lbs., and blends into classroom instruction. They've had several teachers in Michigan buy them already

"One adult in each classroom with this cabability is equivalent to having one adult with a fire extinguisher, and the ability to put out that fire to be able to by time for the fire department to get there," Tunis said.

To schools, those extra seconds are vital, but so is a quality education

"We're all at risk in this day and age, but we also don't want to lose the very comfortable feeling the children have in this environment," Penn said. "So what we do is, we try to walk that fine line every day."

St. Mary's is installing "the Boot," and said they already have more peace of mind. Several other schools in Mid-Michigan are doing the same.

"The boot device sits next to the door, so a teacher or a student if they're instructed to, is to grab the device, slam the door, and drop it in," Couturier said.

When the Northport School District in northern Michigan heard about the boot, they outfitted the entire district immediately, and became the first in the state to use the device

"We're not trying to create a fortress within our schools," Northport Superintendent Jeff Tropf said. "We want our campuses open, we want our kids to feel safe, and the installation of the boot, we feel we are as secure as we can be to allow law enforcement the time to respond."

Law enforcement feel the same way. Ingham County Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth has never endorsed a product, but in this case, he made an exception

"This is going to slow up any crook that's going to try to hurt children, and every school in the country ought to have this," Sheriff Wriggelsworth said.

Horizon Elementary in Holt and the entire Dansville School District are installing the boot, and St. Mary's said this device relieves some of the pressure they feel every day.

"It's a nice back up plan, and hopefully, most of our back up plans we never have to use, but it's good to have a back up plan in place," Preston said.

As for the bulletproof shield, the company says teachers like having it in the classroom.

"They feel empowered, and they feel empowered that in the lockdown, they feel like they can organize their kids, they can get between them and the door if somebody comes through the door, they have something that they can fight back with," Tunis said.

It looks like and acts like a regular whiteboard. Tunis says the jolt felt if a bullet hits the shield is no more than what the shooter feels firing a gun.

"Even if we just save one child or one teacher, this effort is clearly worth it," Tunis said.

Law enforcement and teachers say anything that offers more protection is a good thing.

"I guess it's like with education - the more tools you have in your toolbag, the better prepared you are for whatever happens," Preston said. "I just don't want them to be afraid. I want them to feel safe."


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