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Shooting sparks school safety talks



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December 18, 2012 | 02:07 PM
Newtown and Sandy Hook Elementary School are about 921 miles from Walworth County.

But the west Connecticut town of 27,000 was on the minds of area school officials and law enforcement officers as they reviewed safety procedures used by local schools.

A lone 20-year-old shooter entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 and began shooting.

When he finally shot and killed himself, 20 children and six adults inside the school were dead, the shooter's mother was found shot and killed in her home, and a community was left in a state of shock.

And the shock waves spread across the nation.

Safety by design

"On Friday, as soon as we had some information on the situation, we had a faculty meeting at the high school at 2:45 (p.m.) and at the elementary school at 3:15 (p.m.)," said Vance Dalzin, Williams Bay school superintendent.

On Monday morning, Dalzin met with with maintenance and support staff, again reviewing policies and making sure that doors around the school are locked and secured, he said.

As at all school districts in the area, Williams Bay schools lock their doors.

Only the front doors are open to visitors, and all visitors are required to check in at the office.

"I think it's important to reassure children that schools are safe places," Dalzin said. "Schools are still far safer places than shopping malls and airports," he added.

Williams Bay is talking about building a new elementary school. Will increased security be a factor in the design?

For example, in Newtown, the gunman shot out a window to get around a locked door.

Bullet-proof glass in a school building?

"I don't want to bury my head in the sand and we'd never do that," Dalzin said.

Schools being built today are not like the schools built even a decade ago, with an increased focus on security and control of access, he said.

Dalzin added that he will be talking with the local police about school security.

Professional training

Last summer, local law enforcement officers trained at Brookwood Elementary School in Genoa City.

Having police and fire department members train at the Brookwood middle and elementary schools is beneficial in that they become familiar with interior layouts of the school buildings, said Bill Lehner, Brookwood schools superintendent.

"It gives professionals a chance to get acquainted with our buildings," he said. "We're just trying to be as safe as we can with kids, no matter what the situation is."

Lehner said he and other district officials are constantly reviewing safety procedures and protocols.

"I think we constantly need to revisit everything we do here," he said. "Security is one of those things."

Lehner said security has come up more often in the past several years, and the key is to "try to stay vigilant" about it.

As at Williams Bay, doors at Brookwood are locked. Doors are controlled electronically.

"With a quick touch, we can just lock these down," Lehner said.

However, as in the case at Sandy Hook, the two sets of main doors at Brookwood elementary school and middle school are primarily glass.

That's common, though, in public buildings, Lehner said.

Lehner said that after the Columbine shooting, numerous security measures were enacted in schools throughout the nation.

He said he expects once experts provide full analyses on the Dec. 14 shooting, it's likely that more things will be discussed to better protect children.

Crisis preparation

"We train every year for crisis preparation," Mike Hinske, Big Foot High School principal, said. "This morning (Monday) I just reviewed the crisis response plans with my teachers and staff. Everyone knows what their responsibilities are if something were to happen."

Hinske said Wisconsin requires school districts to practice special security and safety drills twice a year.

On Monday, the school had a police officer in the building.

"We don't have a school liaison officer, but we have a village of Walworth officer working here today," Hinske said.

He said the school is working on a plan to increase the police presence in the school for a while.

"I suggested all teachers take some time out of their classes to talk to kids to make sure our kids feel safe in this environment, safe at school," Hinske said. "If our kids don't feel safe, they won't learn. It has to be our first priority to keep it safe."

Hinske said the school has plans in place and staff has prepared for a crisis similar to the one that happened in Connecticut.

"We also understand that we can't guarantee something like this won't happen," Hinske said. "But if tragedy occurs, we're ready to respond."

Lessons of Columbine

Since Columbine, on April 20, 1999, school safety has been a concern for all school officials and teachers, said Jim Gottinger, superintendent of the Lake Geneva Elementary District and the Badger High School District.

"We do have a safety plan," Gottinger said in a telephone interview on Monday. "We're going to have most of our teachers go through the safety procedures."

He said the two districts have done their best to secure buildings. Doors are locked and visitors are screened.

"You do your best to secure the place and you do your best to have crisis intervention in place," he said.

But this is not just a problem for schools, Gottinger added. There have been shootings around the country in shopping malls, places of worship and movie theaters.

Schools remain among the safest places, he said.

Badger High School and the elementary and middle schools also share a police liaison officer, who makes his rounds wearing his service pistol.

And the halls in Badger have security cameras.

"I'm not saying that any place doesn't have its vulnerabilities," Gottinger said. "You do what you can."

Police response

Lake Geneva Police Chief Michael Rasmussen said that his department is increasing patrols around the schools.

But the schools and department had already worked together to improve school security.

Officer Ralph Braden, Lake Geneva police liaison to the schools, said the department applied for a $57,000 federal Save Our Schools matching grant for school security. The school districts matched the grant, he said.

The grant, awarded in 2010, allowed the districts to add between 12 and 16 security cameras in the schools.

Those cameras can be monitored from the school offices and by police computers as well, Braden said.

The grant and matching funds also paid for several new security doors at East View Elementary School, he said.

In Fontana, Police Chief Steve Olson said his officers are increasing their presence at Fontana Elementary School.

Olson said that officers are usually at the school during the morning drop offs and evening pick ups of students.

"On Friday, they (school officials) called and wanted a bigger presence," Olson said in an interview on Tuesday. He said his officers are now doing more drive throughs on the school parking lot, and more walk-throughs at the school. He said after the holidays, he plans to talk with school officials about what the school needs to enhance its security.

"We're prepared," Olson said. "Whatever level of response the school wants, we'll provide."

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