MOUNT VERNON — The events in Connecticut — the shooting deaths of children and school staff members on Friday — are horrific reminders that tragedy often strikes with no warning.
All schools in the area have school safety plans in place. They are updated at least every three years (Centerburg’s was revamped just this school year) and the plan and school building blueprints are filed with local law enforcement, local fire departments and the attorney general’s office. All districts have lockdown drills at least once a year (East Knox had one Nov. 7) , and representatives from law enforcement, fire departments and/or Homeland Security are usually on hand during the drills to evaluate the procedures and to provide suggestions for improvement.
Mount Vernon Police Capt. George Hartz said he hopes and prays nothing like Newtown ever happens here, and believes our schools do as good a job as they can with regard to security.
“We have different officers attend the lockdown drills, so that all the officers who are working during those hours become familiar with their lockdown policies rather than sending one person and that information maybe not getting shared with the other officers. Then the officer who is at that school makes suggestions based on their experience on changes or other suggestions the school may need to do.”
The drills help both students and staff know what to do if an intruder enters the building. Mount Vernon City Schools Superintendent Steve Short said the teachers’ job in such cases is not to confront the intruder. It is to make sure the students are safe and to get them to a secure location. Short, like the other superintendents contacted by the News, declined to share details for security reasons.
“We don’t want to share details of what we do,” Short continued, “but we will share that there are multiple plans to do multiple things according to what takes place.”
Access to school buildings is limited to some degree in all districts.
“All of our buildings have doors that are locked. There is one point of entry for anyone coming to visit. That point of entry is locked and controlled with a buzzer in the office,” Short said.
At Centerburg, there is only one entry point during the school day. Access into the high school is not quite as restricted.
“I did some soul-searching over the weekend,” said Superintendent Mike Hebenthal. “We practice every year and both staff and students know how to react when something happens. How to prevent it from happening is another issue.”
Pointing out that the Connecticut school was locked with a buzzer system, Hebenthal said there is a fine balance between being a public institution and maintaining security.
“I don’t think the community wants schools to be a military base where you have armed guards and walls where you can’t get in unless you pass layers upon layers of security,” he added.
Hebenthal and the other superintendents said that when something like the Connecticut shootings happens, teachers are directed to be sensitive to student questions about the events and to give age-appropriate responses to those questions. He said administrators and social workers are also ready in case students need to talk things through more thoroughly.
East Knox Superintendent Steve Larcomb said parents, staff, students and community members all have a responsibility to help keep everyone safe.
“Last Friday is another reminder to be aware constantly of what’s going on around us,” he told the News and posted on social media. “If you see something out of the ordinary, tell someone. If you hear any type of threat, report it to authorities. Don’t accept what you know is wrong and that you have the power to positively effect. Correct an unsafe situation, trust your gut, and tell someone in charge.”
“If you see posts, tweets, texts or hear utterances that boast of threats or violence in any form, please let the school know or call the Knox County Sheriff’s Office at 740-397-3333.”
Captain David Shaffer, Knox County Sheriff’s Office, said sheriff’s officers also participate with the drills to see if there they can give any suggestions to the school. They coordinate with the school to make any necessary changes or improvement.
“That also helps keep our guys familiar with the school setting,” he said. “To get them inside the school, to be familiar with the school. We also have floor plans for a lot of the schools.”
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