Newtown, Conn., is nearly 800 miles away from the Wawasee school district, but Friday it seemed right next door. Wawasee teachers, administrators, students and staff, as well as parents of students, reacted with shock, sadness and broken hearts as more than 25 adults and students were killed in a shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“It saddens us all that we have to deal with yet another situation where innocent children and those who have dedicated their lives to working with them are the victims,” said Dennis Howland, principal of Wawasee Middle School, in a letter sent to parents of WMS students Monday.
Wawasee Community School Corp. had already been utilizing several security and safety measures to keep students as safe as possible, but those were reviewed and updated in response to the Connecticut tragedy, the second worst school shooting in U.S. history behind Virginia Tech University in 2007, but the worst elementary school shooting ever.
Wawasee schools went into an additional lock down mode for outside doors for visitors, playground access, etc., said Dr. Tom Edington, Wawasee superintendent. “We are checking exterior doors during the school day,” he added. “The staff at each building reviewed emergency procedures, and those plans, as appropriate, were shared with students. We’re under a heightened sense of awareness. The tough problem is that the elementary school in Connecticut was doing everything correctly, security wise.”
Edington met Friday evening with Steve Perek, dean of students at Wawasee High School, and also Tony Ciriello, who serves on the school corporation safety committee and is also the police chief for the town of Syracuse.
Ciriello said he spent a considerable amount of time reviewing the security procedures used at Sandy Hook and believes those procedures are among the best used. A security camera is in place for identification and a buzzer system with an intercom is utilized to allow entry to the school. “However, as was discovered a determined person will not allow that to stop them; this shooter forced his way into the school past the in place security system,” he said.
He added he feels Wawasee has good security and safety measures in place already and those will only improve as more staff members attend training sessions. To enter any Wawasee school building, a visitor has to be buzzed in. At WMS and the high school, if someone comes through the front entrance they can only enter the rest of the building by going through the main office because the office is located between two sets of doors.
In addition to WMS, letters were sent to parents of students attending each of the Wawasee schools. At the high school, visitors will notice immediately a button must be pushed to enter through door No. 1, the main entrance, as well as door 17, the entrance to the career and technical office within the newest section of the building.
All of the doors in the high school will remain locked during the school day and periodic sweeps will be conducted throughout the school to check for propped doors.
North Webster Elementary had already been utilizing the buzzer system to control access, but also recently revised procedures and does not allow visitors to accompany children onto the playground so it is known all of the adults on the playground are required staff members.
Mental health therapists have been working to create resources parents can use to help them talk to their children more effectively about the Sandy Hook events. Those resources were included in the letter sent to parents of North Webster students.
Common at each school in the district has been an effort to make teachers and students more visible in hallways and doorways so students can be reassured they are in a safe environment. Parents and students have also been strongly encouraged to report concerns, including those found on Facebook or other social media outlets. “If you see something, say something,” is a phrase on nearly every letter sent by the schools to parents.
Staff members at each of the schools have been trained on lock down procedures and drills are held periodically to make sure everyone knows what they are supposed to do. Some staff have received specialized state training and a school resource officer through the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department is located at the high school. Students also participate in emergency drills.
Edington said in the next few years, more security cameras will be added, especially at the high school. The plan is to eventually monitor entrances and exits through electronic locking systems. “Perhaps the best way to prevent school violence is not hardware or training, though,” he said. “It is making sure that everyone in the school environment – students, parents, staff and community members – feels included and valued. Anything we can do to teach and reach every student to be a success in school and with their own emotions lessens the possibility of future occurrences.”
He also noted schools should be and are designed to be open environments. “We hate to inconvenience students, staff and visitors for the random act of someone who wasn’t emotionally stable,” he said. “We have had such positive responses and understanding from our school community, and we thank you for that.”
Edington added a book drive has been started within the school district to send “reassuring books” to Sandy Hook Elementary and a student at North Webster Elementary began a ribbon campaign to show his support for the Newtown community.
“It doesn’t take a tragedy, though, to help us appreciate and care for one another,” he said. “Wawasee was already doing that.”