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New schools reflect lessons from tragedy at Columbine

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Although Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris' deadly 1999 rampage at Columbine High School lasted less than an hour - during which time 12 students and a teacher died - their actions have had a lasting effect on schools all over the country.

The killings at Columbine still are affecting schools around the country, how they are built, how they are staffed and how school personnel react to emergencies.

The Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut renewed public interest in school safety, but for many administrators, the conversation never stopped.

The shootings at Columbine inspired changes to school buildings meant to prevent emergencies from happening in the first place.

Chuck Wilson, Kanawha schools' facilities director, said older schools were designed with the principal's office on the second floor or somewhere at the end of a hall, where noise from classrooms wouldn't distract administrators from their paperwork.

Now, schools are designed so the principal's office is centrally located, allowing them a view of the front driveway and walkways, as well as the school's main corridors.

"Kind of like a centralized control of the building," he said.

Kanawha County Schools now require visitors to buzz in at a school's front entrance before entering the building.

These "man traps" are equipped with an intercom system and a camera, so office staff can see and communicate with each visitor before they walk into the school.

Those building access systems can be scheduled to leave the doors open at certain high-traffic times, like when students are arriving in the morning or during ballgames after school. But Wilson said the system also has a special lockdown feature that will override that schedule, lock all the school's exterior doors and alert law enforcement there is an emergency.

"You've basically got a panic button in the office area they can press," he said.

Wilson said the school system also is working to install driver's license scanners at school entrances.

"If someone looks suspicious you can ask them to run their driver's license through," he said.

The information on the license could then be checked against law enforcement databases.

Safety measures are becoming more high-tech with each school Kanawha County builds.

The newly completed Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary has motion sensors in every classroom, primarily used to turn the lights off when students are not present. But Wilson said those sensors also can be used in emergency situations.

"First responders, if they can interface with this building system, they'll know what rooms where activities are going on," he said.

The school also has a special television channel that is usually devoted to energy management information but could be used in the event of a lockdown or security breach to broadcast messages to classrooms, give students information on what to do or show a map of where intruders are located.

Wilson pointed out that technology and building controls are only tools to head off deadly attacks at schools. Missy Ruddle, Kanawha County's assistant superintendent for middle schools, said she agrees.

"Somebody wants in the building, it's very hard to keep someone that determined out of the building," Ruddle said.

So, in addition to ensuring school buildings are safe and secure, Kanawha County now trains its teachers and staff how to protect students when an emergency occurs.

Like clockwork

Ruddle was principal at McKinley Middle in 1999. While schools had long practiced emergency drills, most were to prepare for fires or natural disasters. Following the shootings at Columbine, Ruddle said schools developed safety plans for nearly any situation imaginable, including school shootings.

"It took away an innocence," she said.

Shortly after the Columbine shootings, Ruddle said school system administrators asked principals to run a lockdown drill, where students are locked in their classrooms to protect them from intruders, and then pull the fire alarm at the same time to confuse teachers.

Although teachers and students had some initial problems with the drills - one teacher let his students into the hallway when Ruddle pulled the fire alarm during a lockdown drill - she said the drills have now become a routine part of school life.

"It always amazes me. The kids know exactly what to do. The teachers and the administration in these schools are constantly thinking about scenarios," she said.

After her time at McKinley, Ruddle became vice principal at South Charleston High School. She said once, during a sporting event in Dunbar, a chemical spill forced both students and parents to take shelter at Dunbar Elementary.

Ruddle said students, knowing the drill, sat quietly in the hallway. Some parents tussled with administrators, however, because they wanted to step outside for a smoke.

"For all of us here now, it's a constant," she said. "It's almost like clockwork."

Mike Pickens, executive director of the West Virginia Department of Education's Office of School Facilities, said every school in the state now has a catalog of crisis response plans.

The book contains step-by-step instructions for scenarios ranging from hazardous material spills to explosions, floods, bus accidents and suicide attempts.

Pickens said he state School Building Authority also is working to map each West Virginia school so first responders can have all the information they need during an emergency.

After Sandy Hook

Mike Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a Georgia-based school safety organization founded in 2000, said the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary have already started a push for increased school safety, much like the one that occurred following Columbine.

But Dorn urges school systems to be more pragmatic about their response this time around.

"People go from complacency to panic real quick," Dorn said. "So many school districts went out after Columbine and spent millions of dollars and looked back and said, 'Hey, this isn't really working for us.' "

Dorn says he visited one school district that spent $50,000 for metal detectors after the Columbine shootings. More than a decade later, the detectors are still in their boxes.

"Most people have no concept of what it takes to do good quality metal detectors," he said.

He points to airports as a good example. The Transportation Security Administration doesn't just rely on scanners to screen passengers before they board a flight, but employs flesh-and-blood screeners who watch the passengers, perform pat-downs and check baggage.

And even if metal detectors kept guns out of schools, Dorn said would-be shooters might just start firing outside the building.

Dorn said the safest schools use a combination of "appropriate security equipment" like cameras, metal detectors and access control systems, along with "high-tech people."

He said teachers and staff should be trained to pick up on subtleties that students might be dangerous to themselves and others.

That training helps school staff solve day-to-day problems as well, Dorn said, allowing them to spot students in need of counseling or some other intervention.

Staff also can be trained to perform "visual weapons screenings," allowing them to determine if someone is wearing a gun based only on how they move and what their clothes look like.

Dorn said it also is important to vary trainings for staff.

"If you practice for an active shooter, the more you focus on an active shooter, the less effective you will be at handling anything else other than an active shooting," he said. "Every school shooting is different. What we had in Connecticut is different than every other school shooting in this country."

He said vendors now sell training videos that allow school administrators to practice different emergency scenarios in five to 10 minutes. The videos, which can be show during pre-school meetings or at staff development days, cover a variety of school emergencies, from severe allergic reactions to child custody issues and school shootings.

Dorn said more than anything, teachers and staff should be trained to react within the first 30 seconds of an emergency.

"That's the critical opportunity to prevent death, whether it's a tornado or a fire or an individual with a gun," Dorn said. "If that custodian or that teacher can't get that door locked . . . that can take an incident from zero causalities to 10, or three to 16."

He also stressed that school officials and parents keep a balanced perspective about school violence. Shootings are not the leading cause of death in schools and, in fact, homicide rates have dropped over last 30 years.

He said medical emergencies are the leading cause of death in schools. Historically, more children have died from tornadoes and fire than in school shootings. At least 40 people die each year at school sporting events.

"Those things claim a lot more lives, but they're one at a time," he said. "It's safer to send your child to school today than it was 30 years ago. It's a lot more dangerous to be a student or a staff member in the 1970s."

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or Follow him at


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