Editorial: Remain vigilant on school safety

The new realities about school safety are known well. Drills instructing students and staff how to protect themselves from armed intruders are the norm, and lockdown is a word even small children now understand.

Sadly, it has to be this way. The anniversary of a horrific school shooting puts that front and center, as do a trio of incidents in the suburbs just this week. These events provide an opportunity for all schools to re-examine their own safety measures and determine what, if anything, they could be doing better.

Earlier this year Illinois lawmakers, at Gov. Pat Quinn’s urging, took a sweeping approach by requiring schools to conduct drills each year specifically for intrusions. That put suburban schools already having regular drills and working with police ahead of the curve. For others, the process is one of refinement.

Cary-Grove High School in Cary drew criticism from parents last January after a lockdown drill included the sound of simulated gunfire in the hallways. “Giving our students a glimpse of what might happen really benefits them,” explained District 155 Communication Director Jeff Puma at the time.

That practice is not common, state officials say, but other types of drills are becoming increasingly so. Elgin Area School District U-46 for several years has conducted an elaborate training exercises with Elgin police and fire departments. The scenario this summer involved a gunman and mock injuries. While students weren’t involved in the training, school administrators observed and took notes.

Palatine Township Elementary District 15 has developed a strong relationship with local police, who conduct regular meetings with staff and even its pool of substitute teachers outlining emergency procedures. In Barrington Unit District 220, a new app for smartphones of everyone in each building is designed to give quick information about any possible threats to safety.

A focus on prevention is another angle, including the recent launch of anonymous online reporting of bullying at many suburban schools.

These efforts are progress in the right direction — and vital in case of emergencies like the lockdown Tuesday at two Lake Zurich schools when a boy reportedly had a weapon and in Lake Villa where a standoff with a resident in his home caused lockdowns at three nearby schools. On Friday, a child showed up at an Elgin school with a loaded gun. No one was injured in the incidents. But they are a testament that anything can happen at any time.

Short of making schools into fortresses, everyone in them needs to feel safe. It’s up to each district to find an appropriate level of protection and to minimize disruptions as much as possible when a crisis occurs. Creating an environment of fear is counterproductive to learning. Finding a balance is not always easy.

As wounds reopen a year after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., one way to honor the 26 children and staff members who died is to ensure our schools are ready for emergencies. For those not directly involved with Sandy Hook Elementary, time passes and memories fade, but our vigilance should remain as it if happened yesterday.

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