After the school shooting almost a week ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, it is, naturally, the first instinct of all school leaders across the nation to act with more vigilance in order to keep their schools as safe as possible for students, teachers and staff. Locally, Crookston schools have introduced the Sandy Hook tragedy and, as is always the case, school leaders are doing whatever they can to prevent any similar tragedies from ever happening in the Crookston School District.
For example, at Highland Elementary School this past Tuesday, students and staff carried out one of their five lockdown drills for the year – required by Minnesota law, along with five fire drills – which had been scheduled for Tuesday prior to the Sandy Hook shooting. According to Lela Olson, first-year principal at Highland, it went well.
"For the most part, students were cooperative and took it seriously," she said.
Tuesday's drill was Olson's first in the building, and compared to previous years, only a few minor changes were made. "We moved the command center from the main office desk to my office," she said. This adjustment will benefit the safety of office staff and other administration, Olson explained, because with Highland's layout the front office is always in the main view when someone enters the building.
In past drills, "Highland has used code words when lockdown drills are practiced to notify staff and students that a shooter has entered the building," Olson explained. On Tuesday, instead of using the code words, Olson said, "Attention, attention. Take lockdown position," during the drill. Olson said the reason for this change is because she believes students need to know when they may be in danger.
A week prior to Tuesday's lockdown drill, Highland staff met to review the school's lockdown plan to prepare for the drill. "I also gave talking points to teachers to be able to use with their students," added Olson. In addition to that, while keeping students shielded from news of the shooting on Dec. 14, but knowing they would see and hear many things over the weekend, Olson sent home resources from the National Association of School Psychologists to help parents speak to their children about violence.
Olson is prepared to answer any questions Highland students may have, and knows that her school will benefit from the precautions they have taken.
Denice Oliver, principal at Washington Elementary School, is proud of how the teachers and staff in her building have handled the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. "Initially, the first thing we did was prepare for the kids coming back to school on Monday," said Oliver. "We wanted to be able to answer any questions they had."
Page 2 of 3 - The teachers and staff also wanted their students to feel safe in their school. "We let the students know that the drills we do and the precautions we take are done to keep them safe," Oliver said.
After practicing the drills, Oliver said she couldn't be more proud of her school. "The thing that came to my mind is how proud I am our our teachers and staff preparing out students for these drills," she said. "When we practice a drill, the school is completely quiet. You could hear a pin drop."
Crookston Police Chief Tim Motherway, Oliver said, will be coming to the school to help school leaders fine-tune their crisis plans and conduct even more educational lockdown drills.
Oliver said the school's crisis plan is constantly reviewed and, if needed, tweaked. "After carrying out a drill, our staff discusses changes that need to be made in order to keep our school safer," said Oliver. Washington has a team of teachers and staff members that reviews the school's crisis plan along with its safe spots and what can be done differently to better prepare students in case of an emergency, she continued.
"If this horrible thing ever happened here, I feel at ease with how the teachers, staff and students are handling the drills," Oliver said.
School District Superintendent Chris Bates remembers the 1999 Columbine shooting, and how it spurred schools everywhere to make crisis plans and implement safety and security policies, and yet massacres such as Columbine keep occurring.
"It's frustrating," said Bates. "Every school makes plans and takes precautions, and it still doesn't prevent things like this from happening."
At Crookston High School, according to the Principal Lon Jorgenson, staff and administration review and read through the crisis plan manual every year to see if any changes need to be made. On Dec. 17, the first day back to school after the Newtown shooting, one small change was made to enhance safety at the high school.
"The east side doors have always been unlocked for students to exit and enter the building," Bates explained. "They make it easier for students to be picked up after school or if they have to leave early."
Now, when students return to the school, they must come back through the front main doors, Bates explained, adding that the change just makes sense since students are required to check in with the office after a doctor's appointment or any other reason for leaving the school or coming in late. The high school has also taken precautions by locking all but one of the main entrance doors.
Page 3 of 3 - "Schools are one of the safest places, and we would all love to be able to say that we've done all this, and everything is fine," Bates said. "Human nature is to think that the steps you take are going to keep this from happening."