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Educators embrace safety measures, protocol

2013-08-12T00:00:00Z 2013-08-13T00:05:30Z Educators embrace safety measures, protocolBy Carmen McCollum and Joyce Russell The Times
August 12, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December was among the worst school tragedies in U.S. history, but state Rep. Linda Lawson wants to ensure no one has a "knee jerk" reaction to school security.

She, instead, hopes everyone embraces legitimate safety measures

The retired police officer from Hammond said she has met in the past with school leaders in Lake County to talk about school safety. Lawson, a Democrat and a member of a legislative school study committee that will meet in late August, said the real issues regarding what happens in school buildings have not been addressed.

She said the state has no consistent policy covering security in school buildings. Lawson said some schools hire retired police officers, some have school resource officers and others hire a security firm, many of whom may not have law enforcement training.

Senate Bill 1 addresses school resource officers and school safety, allowing for up to $10 million in matching grants for schools to hire local police to work as school resource officers.

"One of the measures initially proposed called for an armed person in every school building. I fought against that, and we were able to defeat it," Lawson said.

That amendment was offered by Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, who said the answer to mass shootings such as Newtown was to arm at least one person in each school building, whether a teacher, administrator or parent.

"I believe there is more to address than just putting someone in a building with a gun," Lawson said. "Sometimes there are mental health issues. I think it's important to have a team of people in a building with training who understand the whole person," she said.

East Chicago Police Chief Mark Becker said school safety and security was the topic when he met with 20 to 25 administrators, teachers and school security officials in East Chicago last week.

"It's important to identify small problems before they become large," Becker said. "All of the schools have increased their level of training. Identify problem students. In the past, we might have ignored that, thinking the kid was just having a bad day. Effort has to be made to get to them at an early age before they explode."

Becker, a former FBI agent and Portage police chief, said it's critical that teachers and administrators develop a relationship with students.

"To me, that all goes back to communication and identifying problems before they occur," he said.

New school-security initiatives

Pat Swanson, director of the Porter County Safe School Commission, said there are more than 30,000 school-age children in Porter County and a reinvigorated initiative is looking at how to protect them.

Swanson said the group, formed years ago, re-formed when she and others approached the county's school superintendents last September about safety concerns.

The group now has some 100 members, from school officials to representatives of private and parochial schools, early-learning centers, police and fire departments, mental health providers and others looking at a range of issues to keep kids safe in schools -- whether the threat comes from a school shooter or a tornado, Swanson said.

Swanson said every county school superintendent has signed a memorandum of commitment.

"We are all being proactive," she said.

The commission is funded through the end of this year by a $30,000 grant from the Porter County Board of Commissioners.

Swanson said each school district in the county is applying for a federal Safe Schools grant through the Department of Homeland Security. Grant application are due Sept. 30, and a couple provide up to $50,000 for everything from safety equipment to school resource officers and training.

Portage Township Schools spent nearly $180,000 this summer to make some of their school buildings safer.

Entrances to eight Portage Township school buildings are being reconfigured this summer to funnel visitors directly into an office, Superintendent E. Ric Frataccia said.

While visitors must be "buzzed in" at all schools, some entryways allowed access to the school building without coming in contact with a person. Reconfiguring the entrances to Portage High Schools' east and west buildings, as well as Fegely Middle School and Saylor, South haven, Kyle, Central and Aylesworth elementary schools is being completed before classes begin.

Discovery Charter School Principal Ernesto Martinez said training is key to keeping the 495 children who attend the Chesterton school safe.

"Last year, we held an active-shooter-and-response training for staff," Martinez said, adding students also are trained in lockdown drills, much like they are trained in fire alarm or tornado drills. He said they also discuss safety at parent informational meetings.

School districts reach out

Merrillville Superintendent Mark Sperling said there are cameras throughout the school buildings, and officials regularly conduct lockdown, fire and emergency drills. He said they also conducted a safety audit.

"In some buildings, security windows have been installed, in others bank-style windows have been installed with additional camera systems so staff can identify persons seeking to visit the buildings," Sperling said.

The town of Merrillville also applied for a Community Oriented Policing Services grant to hire two additional officers, one of whom would be a school resource officer, joining the one officer now employed by the school district.

In the Gary Community School Corp., Sgt. Lionel Hampton, coordinator of security, said no doors are propped open or unlocked. The district's middle/high schools all have metal detectors, and there are security officers in the secondary buildings and roving officers in the elementary buildings.

"Our officers have attended training," he said. "We're also applying for grants so that we can update the camera system and get school access cards and other things that we need."

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