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It happened again: An armed gunman made his way into an elementary school near Decatur, Georgia. Thankfully, this time, a quick-thinking clerk kept him talking in the office until police could get there and no one was hurt. But the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, still has many parents wondering what security measures should be in place regarding gunfire at their children's schools.
The most common procedure at schools when there's an imminent threat like a gunman is a lockdown, which keeps students and staff behind locked doors so police and other first responders can find, isolate and eliminate an intruder as quickly as possible. "Locking down the school as a first response during an active shooter situation is the smart thing to do," says school safety expert Martin Speckmaier, owner and managing member of Comprehensive School Safety LLC in Seattle. "You can then start releasing students classroom by classroom, and tell them to get out of the building."
After the February school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, some military and police trainers suggested that "Run, Hide and Wait" gunfire safety be added to drills for students. "Running away can often give kids a much better chance of survival," Chuck Habermehl, founder of Close Quarters Battle in Florida, told The Daily in February. "Sometimes it's safer just to get the heck out of there." But running and hiding may be too confusing for young children, like the 5- and 6-year old victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Ideally, say experts, schools should have three types of plans: One where children will shelter in place (when there's an isolated danger like a gas leak that may only affect a portion of the building), a lockdown (when there's imminent danger in the building and everyone is cleared from public areas) and evacuation.
Whatever the emergency plans are, it's critical that parents know them. Parents should check with schools to learn what the procedures are and where to meet your kids should they be released from school in an emergency (usually called the "reunification sites").
And be sure to find out if your school is practicing lockdown drills, so teachers and students will know what to do in an emergency. In some areas this is now state law and some districts have implemented lockdown drills following a fire drill to ensure the plan is well-practiced, says Gregory Thomas, member of the advisory board of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a former director of security for New York City Public Schools.
Finally, parents also need to support their school's efforts to strengthen security. "Don't let individuals on campus that don't have legitimate business, and if they do, make sure that they are always properly signed in," says Thomas. Ideally, all students, staff and visitors should come into one main entrance and keep exterior doors locked. Having highly-trained security officers and/or armed police officers working at the school should also be considered. To learn more about identifying warning signs in schools early and prevention, visit the U.S. Department of Education.