The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 has prompted expressions of sympathy and shock from around the world. Many parents here are also worrying if it's safe to send their children to school.
A handful of parents attended the Mexico School Board meeting Tuesday, questioning the safety measures at the city's local elementary buildings. Officials from the three school districts in Audrain County – Mexico, Laddonia and Van-Far – said they have policies in place that they believe will keep their students secure and safe.
Mexico District Superintendent Kevin Freeman said the Mexico Board of Education reviews its security policies annually, and meets with local law enforcement agencies twice a year for emergency practice drills and exercises.
"We try to operate in a safe manner every day of the year, not just in response to an event such as this," Freeman said. "Naturally, this kind of event makes you review your safety plans and procedures. We have plans in place already for students who might need extra counseling or have other concerns."
Freeman said his district practices emergency drills regularly and has fire, storm, earthquake and student defense initiative drills on a regular basis. The main doors to each building are unlocked, and all other entrances are locked. The district also continues to upgrade its camera systems and has re-keyed almost all of its exterior doors to limit keyed access into the buildings. Additionally, they have two School Resource Officers (SROs) who are armed.
"We have a great relationship with our local law enforcement. They do a great job in responding to any need we have," Freeman noted. But even that, he warns, may not be enough to stop anyone who is heavily armed with multiple weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from shooting his or her way into a school.
"Short of armor plated school buses and fortified buildings, I fear there is no good answer and that we will always live with threat," Freeman said. "People need to remember that we live in one of the safest countries in the world. We don't feel like it at a time like this, but it is true. Children in other countries face a great deal more threat than those in the United States. That does not mean we can ignore safety, far from it. We can learn from this and (next time) do a better job."
Freeman added, "We take our duty very seriously. However, we cannot do this alone." The best deterrent, he said, "is a public that talks to their kids. A public who is willing to engage in conversation and report to law enforcement suspicious or illegal behavior."
Community R-6 Superintendent Cheryl Mack said her district has strong security protocols in place, and that students and staff there are well versed in emergency drills. Her school district currently participates with an Audrain County Interagency committee and works with the Audrain County Sheriff's Office to schedule staff training.
Page 2 of 3 - "Communication is vital to stay abreast of area concerns," Mack said. Community R-6 has made upgrades in past years and will continue to look at improvements to facilities in regard to safety and security.
"While it is difficult to anticipate every scenario that might take place we are confident that our district will continue to be vigilant in our efforts to protect our students," Mack said. At this time, all outside doors on the Community R-6 campus are locked, and a note to parents explains the district's procedures for arrival and departure of students.
"Statistically, schools are one of the safest environments for school-age children," Mack said. When asked where something like this tragedy ends, she said that was a difficult a question and in turn asked, "How do any of us control evil."
Her advice to parents is to monitor their children's communication with others and report any concerns to school administration or local law enforcement. "It takes everyone working together to maintain the safety of our children," Mack said.
Van-Far Superintendent Chris Felmlee said he has met with his building principals, building custodians, heads of maintenance, technology and transportation directors and counselors to discuss the district's current security practices and facility needs for improved security. The meeting reportedly concluded with the understanding that all doors into the school would remain locked at all times with one point of access into the building designated as a public entry way.
The district also intends to purchase additional radios for staff essential to responding to a security concern, and identification badges are to be visibly worn. The district recently made improvements to its security camera system to both buildings, and will begin composing estimates for improved internal security and systems to notify building offices for public admissions into the buildings.
"It's never too late to review security and crisis response, measures, procedure and policy," Felmlee said. The building administrators conduct annual safety drills and multiple fire drills.
"Our programs are reviewed at a minimum of every two years. Our crisis plans were recently updated and will be reviewed in light of current concerns," Felmlee said.
Felmlee has three children who attend school in Van-Far Elementary and one child in the Van-Far Junior High School.
"I am proud they attend school here," he said. "My wife and I are employees of the district. I would not be here if we did not maintain a student centered learning environment."
"Security is an important issue. However, mental health is also a concern that I have. Van-Far does a lot to address every student's concern and needs; as a result this is one of our many strengths," Felmlee said. "The attacks to our schools and public places are senseless acts of evil. I pray we never have to experience such horrific acts. My prayers, faith, hope and love are with the community and families as they begin to heal."
Page 3 of 3 - Van-Far does not currently have a school resource officer. Felmlee said the district investigated the thought two years ago with the sheriff's office and appealed to the county commissioners for assistance. Finances were a major concern.
"My hope is that the county commissioners and sheriff's department can work together to make one school resource officer available to be shared between the community, Van-Far and St. Joseph's Schools," Felmlee said. "In general, our schools are among the safest places for our children regardless of which school community – Wellsville-Middletown, Mexico or Van-Far. During my tenure, I have worked closely with the area school superintendents and I am proud to have served with them. They are professionals with a focus on doing what is best for kids and creating student centered learning environments."
He added: "Regardless of the school and type of concern, if a parent or member of the community has a concern it is critical they meet with teachers, the building administration, and central office administrators. We are all in this together. It truly takes a village to meet the needs of our kids."