Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 14, 2012

School safety on locals' minds after Conn. shootings

BY MICHAEL WALTON, and BRIAN McGILLIVARY
mwalton@record-eagle.com, bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — Principal Lee Ann Stephan fielded questions about school safety from anxious parents as they picked up their students from Crystal Lake Elementary School on Friday.

Just this week Benzie Central Schools conducted district-wide lock-down drills to prepare staff and students for events similar to the horror that occurred Friday morning in an elementary school in Connecticut, Stephan said.

Locking classroom doors and having students take shelter is the general protocol for schools, she said.

"It was just a tragedy and I've been reassuring parents," Stephan said. "We do our best to be prepared if any situation should happen, but we are generally hoping and praying that it never happens. It's so sad."

Parents found the news disturbing. It was only last week that Traverse City Central High School alerted parents that a student was found in possession of a gun, though not on campus, said Stella Astor, who has a high school daughter, 16, and a son, 10, at Eastern Elementary.

"It's scary to me," said Astor.

Astor is from Tanzania, where no one is allowed to have a gun.

"It's different than here. I can see why people get them because some people are crazy," she said.

Astor opposes Michigan's newly passed legislation that would allow concealed weapons on school grounds.

"You shouldn't carry a gun unless you're a security guard," she said.

John Beattie, of Traverse City, has four children, ages 4 to 13. He called the shooting tragic and likely the act of another desperate and mentally ill person who did not get help.

'No amount of policy'

Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Keith Smith said the tragedy stresses the importance of reporting any indications that someone may launch into a violent episode.

"Obviously, when someone sends their kids to school they expect them to be safe, and we make them as safe as possible," Smith said. "But there is no amount of policy you can put in place to prevent what happened."

"Unless we operate schools like prisons we are susceptible to these kinds of incidents," he said.

Traverse City Area Public Schools board member Gary Appel knows Fairfield County, the county where the shooting occurred, from traveling around the East Coast.

Appel described the area as "beautiful," with "rolling hills."

"That is a fairly insulated community in terms of some of the day-to-day violence some Americans live in," Appel said. "... you don't put that together with this kind of violence, but I guess it can happen anywhere."

Fellow board member Megan Crandall called the shooting a terrible, scary situation.

"We can all say we are thinking of (the victims) and we will help them in anyway we can, but I can't even imagine the terror and the anguish they are feeling."

Training, lockdown drills

Grand Traverse County Undersheriff Nathan Alger called Friday's murderous rampage "horrible."

Law enforcement throughout the region coordinate to create special emergency response teams to confront threats like the gunman in the Connecticut school shooting, Alger said.

"We train regularly, including training at schools. We do lockdown drills and are very active with our school systems, including ground floor training for a school crisis. We plan and practice with them," he said.

Parents can take some steps to help protect their children.

"You are never going to be 100 percent (safe,) but what I tell parents is to be involved in your kids' lives and listen to what they say," Alger said. "If they are saying something that concerns you or you get a feeling of uncertainty or uncomfortableness, pay attention. If something makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, act on it."

Blair Elementary School Principal Sharon Dionne said a sense of sadness swept over her for the entire nation when she heard Friday's news.

"It's a tragedy for all of us regardless of where it takes place," Dionne said. "It's sad to know we live with that kind of violence going on everyday."

Dionne said TCAPS has begun to install security cameras inside and outside school buildings. The cameras at Blair feed surveillance footage that can be monitored in the central office.

Suttons Bay Public Schools Superintendent Mike Murray was an assistant principal at a school in Germany when authorities learned of a terrorist threat.

"We had tank traps outside the building and an armed Marine in every classroom," Murray said. "It wasn't the best atmosphere for learning."

It turned out the terrorists planned to attack students during a soccer match outdoors, but officials had cancelled the match.

"I know that people want to make schools 100 percent safe, but there is no way to make every school 100 percent safe," Murray said. "Schools were designed to be open to the public and now all of a sudden we want them to be a fortress and it's not going to be easy.

"You have all sorts of parents and relatives coming into schools and do you start treating them as potential enemies?"

Staff writers GLENN PUIT and ANNE STANTON contributed to this report.