Prepare, but don’t scare: That’s the new mantra for dozens of Northeast Philadelphia schools in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.
About 50 local school administrators and security officials gathered at the 8th Police District on Jan. 9 to prepare their institutions in case something like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happens here. Citing protocols recently issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Capt. Len Ditchkofsky encouraged the school leaders to create and practice plans for handling various emergency situations.
However, some school officials cautioned that grown-ups must treat the children gently, lest fear overwhelm the youngsters even if a real threat never materializes.
“I hate to scare little kids, but they do need to know what to do if it happens,” said Ditchkofsky, the 8th district commander. “I was Catholic school born and bred and every month we did fire drills. We did them again and again and if anything happened, we knew what to do.”
Others at the meeting compared the concept of “active shooter” drills to the nuclear air raid drills schools performed across the country in the 1950s and early ’60s.
“It’s always better to be prepared. The more education the better,” said Jennifer Cullen, president of the home and school association at A.L. Fitzpatrick School in the Far Northeast’s Chalfont section.
Schools should ramp up their building security and foster a respectful environment for employees and students, while learning how to recognize warning signs for violence before it happens, Ditchkofsky said.
Prior to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, for example, the eventual shooter had posted “angry, profanity-laced” videos on the Internet, Ditchkofsky said. A report issued later by an investigative panel detailed various warning signs and the failure by university administrators and others to recognize or act upon them.
According to Ditchkofsky, the Newtown shooting has already become the subject of similar study by the law enforcement academic community.
Meanwhile, many schools have already beefed up their own security measures.
“We’ve already taken steps,” said Cheryl Glaser, the principal at Fitzpatrick, a K-8 public school. “Every exterior door is locked twenty-four hours a day. If doors are opened, there are monitors there to make sure we know who [arrives]. If they don’t know you, I will go out there.”
Further, the home and school association bought advanced security equipment for the school.
Other local school administrators advocate for broader changes.
“We do not want policemen with guns in our schools. If we had more nurses and counselors, we wouldn’t have these problems,” said Sister Trudy Helder, principal at Christ the King School, a parochial grade school in Morrell Park. “Nurses recognize mental health along with physical health.”
The police can’t really help with that, but they are willing to help schools with their planning on a case-by-case basis. Schools should have evacuation plans and “shelter in place” plans. They should instruct parents what to do if news breaks of problems at their child’s school. Teachers and staff should know how to direct children and how to handle the arrival of authorities. Police want to know ahead of time what the school plans to do so they know what to expect when they arrive.
“I’m very grateful that the Eighth District took the lead on a topic we can no longer ignore,” said Sister Shaun Thomas, IHM, principal at St. Dominic School in Upper Holmesburg.
Sister Shaun noted that youngsters may not be as naive to the reality of violence as kids were generations ago, or as adults think they are.
“When we practiced all these things, there wasn’t incident after incident occurring,” she said. ••