By KATE LUDLOW
In the wake of last week’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, Liberty Hill parents are looking to local school officials for reassurance that their children are safe.
Details continue to emerge about the shooting, which took the lives of 20 children and six adults at the school on Dec. 14. The shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, took his own life at the school, and killed his mother at her home prior to the rampage.
“It’s more complicated than just sending them (children) to school every day,” says Liberty Hill Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart. “You really never know what could happen. It’s not just things like this – bus accidents, and other things could happen. When you deal with that many people, you learn to always be on point.”
Dr. Hart said that the district’s campuses have a number of security measures in place for the safety of students. Each school has a central check-in point, and doors are locked from the outside where possible.
“In some of the older buildings, you have to keep in mind that when they were built in the 50’s or the 60’s, these things weren’t on their minds. So we’re working to create more barriers,” he said.
Visitors to each school are required to check in, and their state-issued identification card is run through the Raptor system.
“It does run a background check right then. Its main goal is to check the registered sex offenders list, but it would flag someone who is a wanted person. It prints out a photo nametag, which is another hurdle,” said Dr. Hart. “If there are office personnel available, they (the visitors) are then escorted to where they are going.”
Staff members are also trained to be aware of what Dr. Hart calls “strange behaviors.”
“It is not extensive training, but it’s enough to know when something is not right,” he says.
Liberty Hill Elementary School Principal Jan Tredemeyer agrees.
“A lot of us that see the public every day, we know the things that indicate where something is out of the normal,” she said, adding that staff are trained to notify someone immediately if they see something out of the ordinary. “We always err on the side of safety with the children. We would rather be wrong than take a risk.”
All campuses practice regular fire and lockdown drills.
“We do drills. We’re always training and retraining our staff. We do as much safety practice as you can. We have a lockdown drill that teaches the students and teachers to keep quiet and stay away from the windows and doors. We don’t do that on the PA, because we don’t want to create a scary situation,” she said.
Should something go wrong, the district has an emergency phone notification system in place.
Liberty Hill Intermediate School Principal Kathy Major said, “We use it to send out homework notifications, and special event information. In the event of an emergency, we could immediately record a message and send it to either all parents at one campus or across the district.
“We’re hyper-vigilant. We do have emergency plans, we do have monitors. We have a lot of presence, and we are constantly thinking of our children’s safety,” Mrs. Major said.
Liberty Hill teachers and staff first become familiar with campus crisis plans during inservice training prior to the start of school each year. At that time, each teacher is provided with an Emerency Bag that contains a first aid kit, flashlight, escape routes for the campus, snacks, some water and rosters. Employees learn the location of “safe spots” on their campus.
Since the shooting in Connecticut, Mrs. Major said she has reviewed with teachers how to monitor hallways during transition times and playgrounds. The school was scheduled to have a lockdown drill Wednesday to practice the procedures.
“We don’t want our kids to live in fear,” Mrs. Tredemeyer said. “We keep them as safe as we can.”
Terrie Chambers, principal at Bill Burden Elementary School, said maintaining vigilence means building a positive presence.
“Building relationships with kids and parents, closes windows to the opponents,” she said. “Doubt sets us up as targets.”
Principals say they heard from a number of parents this week inquiring about security measures at the schools, many looking for reassurance that their children were safe in their care.
“I think the ones I talked to today were reassured,” said Mrs. Major. “They (parents) need to know that we do have a plan, but we don’t share that with them or the public completely because then we would have to change it to stay secure.”
LHISD Curriculum Director Claudeane Braun said Monday that she reviewed the district’s crisis plan earlier that morning and admitted that it needs to be updated.
“It’s time we go back and revisit it (the plan),” said Mrs. Braun.
The school district belongs to the Central Texas Safety Consortium, an organization that updates districts when there are legal changes that impact school safety. Annually, administrators consider those legal changes and incorporate them into the district’s plan.
“You know, this could have happened at a shopping mall, a theater or anywhere, but it’s very connected to us because we can relate,” Mrs. Major said. “It’s hard to fathom the profound sadness and shock.”
In the wake of the tragedy, parents may be having difficulty talking to their children about what happened. Every campus has a school counselor, and Bill Burden Elementary Counselor Emily Shine encourages parents to remind their children that talking to them, or the counselors, can be a positive thing.
“Each campus is different, but with the younger kids, I tell parents not to go into specifics of what happened. Let them know there was a tragedy, make sure they know we (the schools) do have a safety plan, and more importantly, I tell parents not to make promises,” said Mrs. Shine.
“That’s hard, but don’t tell your children things like, ‘I promise that nothing will happen.’ We have to teach them to be proactive, not reactionary. We encourage parents to have an open communication about personal responsibility, and how they (children) are in charge of their own actions,” said Mrs. Shine.
One Liberty Hill mom said her confidence in public schools was not shaken by the incident.
“My first reaction was to run up to the school and bring him (her son) home, but then I would have had to explain why and I wasn’t ready to have that conversation with him yet,” said Evin Cooper, mother of a student at Bill Burden Elementary “He’s only 8, so I had to really think about how to talk to him about it.
“When I did, I focused on how much the teachers loved the kids and how they did everything they could to keep the kids safe. I told him how much his teachers love him and how brave they are. I explained that they have a plan to keep kids safe and he should do exactly what his teachers tell him,” she said.
“We moved to Liberty Hill because it’s so safe and because I wanted my kids in a school where a stranger would be recognized as out of place,” said Mrs. Cooper. “I have complete confidence in our teachers and administrators. They’d lay down their lives to keep our kids safe, but I doubt it would get that far. A bad guy would be recognized and dealt with before it became an issue.”