TRAVERSE CITY — Gone are the days when parents could walk into schools and head directly to their children’s classrooms.
One year ago today a man burst into an elementary school in the sleepy town of Newtown, Conn., and sprayed gunfire at students, teachers and administrators. Twenty children and six adults died in the shooting spree, a horrific incident that created a universal sense of fear that school children need to be better protected.
Now, about 900 miles away, schools in the Grand Traverse region adopted new security measures that transformed their entrances -- and attitudes.
Many local schools now require visitors to use intercoms, and school officials lock more doors and have more security cameras at entrances. Many schools tried to align their main offices with front entrances so visitors are immediately visible. Such is the case in Suttons Bay Elementary School, where the main office was moved from the second to the first floor.
“The feeling in the school is that we need to reassure our parents that we’re doing all we can to provide a safe environment,” said Michael Murray, Suttons Bay Schools superintendent.
Traverse City Area Public Schools officials have long led the way for school security in the area; now, since Sandy Hook, more small schools are revamping their security systems, said Dan Doornbos, an employee at Allen Supply, a company that reviews and installs security systems, including many at local schools.
“You’re seeing more of the outlying small schools starting to get on board with securing their building so they know everybody that’s in that building,” said Doornbos. “No longer can you just walk into a school and go to wherever you want in a school without having a conversation with some staff.”
Some schools added new security measures to their recent millage proposals. In Elk Rapids, administrators wanted to install a new camera system, and in Traverse City Area Public School’s Central High School, administrators wanted to shift cameras, install a new locking system to better cover outlying buildings, and change the front layout of the high school.
Voters defeated both measures.
Ken O’Brien, the head of district safety and security for TCAPS, said changes to the schools post-Sandy Hook were minimal and more a matter of routine.
“I would say what Sandy Hook did was certainly heighten the awareness, for sure,” O’Brien said. “I would say it also has heightened the awareness of local law enforcement and emergency personnel.”
In Kalkaska, Sandy Hook hastened security changes after they languished on a to-do list.
“I don’t know if you could say it’s all related back, because we were looking at that before that happened and this just brought it to the forefront,” said Kalkaska Schools Superintendent Lee Sandy.
But Sandy acknowledged “major changes” were made to his school system in the wake of Sandy Hook, and now all entrances are locked during the day and visitors have to buzz in.
“I would say that’s the whole concern, about security and people getting in that don’t belong,” Sandy said.
Administrators in Elk Rapids immediately moved to make sure all doors except the front entrances are locked throughout the day.
“We feel we're extremely safe, but Sandy Hook … what shocked people was they had pretty good security measures in place,” said Elk Rapids Superintendent Stephen Prissel. “It was a shock-and-awe type of day when that happened. You just don’t know and you try to take every measure possible to try to protect your kids.”
More changes need to be made at the state level before Suttons Bay's Murray will be able to rest easy about his students’ safety, he said.
The Suttons Bay Board of Education passed a resolution this week to urge the state legislature to make it illegal for any non-law enforcement officer to have firearms on school grounds, at Murray’s request.
“You can’t walk into a bar or sports arena or theater with a weapon, but you can walk into a school (with one) legally if you have a permit,” Murray said. “Our legislation has laws in place that allow people to openly carry into the building. It goes counter to all of our measures.”