School officials discuss ways to guard against shootings

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. •• 

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