Editor's Note

Safe at School

STUDENTS should be safe and feel secure in a learning environment. However, in the last few years, some schools have been anything but safe and secure. Some have been shooting galleries for terrorists, and it shouldn't be this way on any campus.

School violence hasn't required offenders to overpower any one person. The perpetrators typically wander inside a building and begin a takeover.

All roads seem to lead back to Columbine High School in Colorado, but that wasn't the first example of campus violence, and as we have seen lately, it won't be the last. My earliest memory of school violence came in 1986 in Cokeville, Wyo.

Back then, Cokeville was a quiet community of less than 500 residents. Most residents are farmers and ranchers, laboring off the land. It was the kind of community where you knew everyone, and everyone knew you. Your business was their business, whether you liked it or not.

All that changed on May 15, 1986, when former city marshal David Young and his wife, Doris, returned to town, particularly the elementary school, with five rifles, five handguns and a "dead-man's" bomb. This was not a school assembly. The Youngs herded school secretary Tina Cook and a 154 students into a first-grade classroom. Several teachers joined the group as the crazed bomber talked about taking everyone to a "brave new world," where he would be the ruler.

Several hours later, Young transferred the shoelace bomb switch from his wrist to that of his wife. One of the teachers indicated by motion that she had a headache. Doris did the same, and the "dead-man bomb" ignited. It was a miracle that only half of the bomb dropped and exploded like a torch. None of the children were killed in the blast, but Doris was seriously injured. At that point, Young shot her in the head at point-blank range, then killed himself.

School violence hasn't required offenders to overpower any one person. The perpetrators typically wander inside a building and begin a takeover. Not long ago, a 53-year-old drifter spent two hours in the parking lot of Platte County High School in Colorado. Then, he got out of a car and walked the halls of the school for nearly an hour before he took hostages.

The early movements of Duane Morrison were detected by surveillance cameras, yet school officials thought he was there as a parent. In this day and age, where violence has been so pronounced on campus, even parents should be mandated to check in at a reception office. At the very least, Morrison should have been challenged as to why he was in the school and roaming the halls.

Fast forward 20 years from the Cokeville incident to Utah, as firearms expert Clark Aposhian offers a free class to teachers interested in obtaining a concealed weapons permit. The teachers' union has always resisted the idea of arming school employees, according to Susan Kuziak, executive director of the teachers' union.

While Aposhian's intentions may be good, it is a bad idea because the potential for harm is too great. Guns and school teachers do not mix well. In fact, who's to say some kid couldn't wrest a gun from a teacher? The fact is, teachers should not be roaming the halls of the building if an intruder is on campus. A campus police resource officer has that training and is most qualified to deal with such an event. Teachers are not law enforcement officers, and any thought that they should be held accountable for security in such a situation is only a knee-jerk reaction to past terrorist events.

According to Granite School District, Utah, Police Chief Randy Johnson, elementary schools should be locked up, except for the front door, and teachers should be given cards to shepherd children in and out during the school day. The world has changed according to Johnson, and indeed it has.

Granite School District is in the heart of Salt Lake Valley, and they have refocused on school security by updating preparedness manuals and also require employees to wear IDs. The district also has implemented a weapons hotline for students to use to anonymously report suspicious activity. Security cameras have been placed in all secondary school, including 34,400 listening devices for after-hours security monitoring and criminal deterrents.

The bottom line is that Johnson wants all elementary schools doors locked, except for the main entrances. Teachers would have access key cards to open doors, and principals would be able to lock down their schools with a push of a button.

Johnson's proposal is being piloted at three elementary schools; and the district's education center has key-card access. The district's computer server room requires thumbprint identification for entry, and the superintendent is suggesting that every student wear an ID card.

After Columbine, we thought we had campus security all figured out. But people who commit these acts are not stable and normal in their thinking, especially in light of the fact that they're willing to kill themselves.

An added layer of security always helps. Challenging someone not familiar to the campus and directing them to the office can work. Remember Tina Cook in Cokeville? The first words from her mouth the day the Youngs entered the office were, "Can I help you?"

Not much has changed in Cokeville over the past 20 years, though no one feels quite as safe as they used to. According to Cook, it's tense in the springtime.

Bomb and guns are things you don't easily forget. Weapons have no place in school settings, and if there's one thing we should learn from campus tragedies, it's that children are vulnerable and deserve the best protection possible. When surveillance cameras indicate that someone who doesn't belong on campus is actually roaming the halls, it's time to alert campus police. Locking the doors seems like a viable option because some elements of the outside world have no place on campus.

This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Security Products, pg. 6.

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