Hard Choices

Schools, public spaces rethink security after mass shootings

Posted January 23, 2013
Updated January 28, 2013

— The Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., last month shook the nation's sense of safety to its core when an elementary school, where parents sent their children everyday, was transformed forever by a terrible act of violence.

It sparked a dialogue in schools across the nation about what security measures can and should be put in place to keep students safe.

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In a WRAL News poll, 41 percent of respondents said better security would be the most effective way to reduce school shootings. At least one North Carolina school district is already taking action to put armed officers in their elementary schools.

The Lee County Public School District is a relatively small school system with 16 schools and fewer than 10,000 students, but it is one of the first in the area to take dramatic steps to prevent school violence.

Since the Newtown shooting, Superintendent Jeff Moss is fast-tracking a proposal to permanently station armed officers at all elementary schools and institute high-tech security measures.

"What we're looking at doing is installing an audio-visual system with a buzzer entrance," Moss said, adding that the receptionist would have a list of people not permitted on school grounds.

Moss wants to replace exterior glass with either tinted glass or a security glass that can be found in other parts of the school. Lee County classrooms already have wires in the windows of the classroom doors. Even if the glass breaks, the wires prevent someone from reaching in to unlock the door. Another simple feature: a plastic strip that covers the door window in the event of a lockdown.

"The system we're putting in as well will have an immediate lockdown feature so that the principal can lock all exterior doors with the touch of a button," Moss said.

Teacher Kristen Young said she and her colleagues know exactly what to do in a lockdown situation because they train for it.

"We try to move (children) away from doors and any of the windows," she said. "We want to do the best to keep everyone safe."

Terri Anderson, a parent of three students in Lee County Schools who also works as an elementary school tutor, said she never worried about her children's safety at school until the tragedy in Connecticut.

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"I started thinking about when I send my children to school, how hard or how easy would it be to get into their building?" she said.

Anderson said seeing an armed police officer on campus and hearing the superintendent's proposal for further security measures has put her mind at ease.

"It makes me very comfortable, and it makes me feel good that someone is watching out for my children besides myself," she said.

Toni Moseley, an assistant teacher at a Wake County elementary school and grandmother of two kindergarten students, said she would like to see a security guard at her school.

"Since the shooting occurred, I do get kind of nervous now," Moseley said. "I would like to see more security. I feel that we should have police right there on site ... at every school."

Schools aren't the only public facilities evaluating security measures. At WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, CEO and President Bill Atkinson said his organization has been "light years ahead" of many other hospitals in the country when it comes to public safety.

"You can occasionally have issues. Our intent is always, in a place that has a lot of people passing through, to make sure it stays a safe place," Atkinson said. "I think we've done a great job with that over many, many years."

A large part of WakeMed's security strategy involves having their own armed police force, including 50 sworn officers.

The hospital's Raleigh campus is like a small city, where 20,000 patients, staff, visitors and doctors pass daily through its many doors – most of which are open 24/7.

Public spaces on the WakeMed campus are being filmed by "hundreds and hundreds" of security cameras, Atkinson said, and the hospital's state-of-the-art operations center allows security personnel to monitor every camera.

The cameras themselves can be hard to spot.

"(They are) very subtle," said WakeMed Police Chief David Ng. "That's the biggest thing. We try to make sure they're not so intrusive, but they're in areas that are very important to cover like entrances and exits."

Elevators are another point of access, which can be locked down if a security threat appears, Ng said.

"We can do it manually and a lot of our elevators have access control," he said. "For certain floors, they're restricted."

If a patient, visitor, doctor or nurse spots a security threat, there are call boxes located throughout the campus that connect to the hospital's emergency dispatch center, Ng said.

There are other public places where people go all the time and rarely think about safety. On Dec. 11, three people, including the gunman, died in a mall shooting near Portland. Ore.

With 14 million visitors a year and more than 3,000 employees, Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh is one of the busiest malls in North Carolina. To make people feel secure while they shop, Crabtree employs its own police force, including 26 sworn officers who take a high visibility approach to deterring violence.

Crabtree police Chief Devlin Bullock said safety is his top priority.

"(We want to make sure) the mall is a safe environment for everyone," he said.

Herbert Miller, of Angier, said he is more cautious at the mall than before the Oregon shooting.

"Now is the time to start thinking about where to park, who to be with and never go alone if you can avoid it," he said.

Holly Springs resident Kasey Griffith said she knows violence can happen anywhere, but in general, she feels safe at shopping malls. When it comes to her children, she wants to keep them safe without making them afraid.

"I try not to hover because you don't want them to be scared everywhere they are, but it's definitely in our minds all the time," she said.

Before sending her children into an unpredictable and sometimes violent world, Anderson said she holds them a little tighter.

"Definitely a little extra hug and a reminder of how much I love them when they leave," she said.


This story is part of WRAL's prime time special "Soft Targets, Hard Choices." We welcome your comments and questions. Send email to hardchoices@wral.com or use #hardchoices on Twitter.

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