With security stepped up and families still on edge in Newtown, Connecticut, students began returning to school Tuesday, December 18, for the first time since the massacre on Friday, December 14. A total of 26 people, 20 being children, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S history.
According to authorities, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, shot his mother, Nancy, at their home and then took her car and some of her guns to the school, where he broke in and opened fire. Lanza's mother, a gun enthusiast who practiced at shooting ranges, was found dead in her pajamas in bed, shot four times in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.
Lanza is believed to have used a Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle, a civilian version of the military's M-16. It is similar to the weapon used in a recent shopping mall shooting in Oregon and other deadly attacks around the U.S. Versions of the AR-15 were outlawed in this country under the 1994 assault weapons ban, but the law expired in 2004.
In the wake of a tragedy such as this, people tend to become more concerned than usual about their children's safety while at school, gun laws, etc. How would Ripley County Schools respond to such an emergency? Is the local law enforcement prepared to handle something like this here?
Versailles resident, Karen Bastin, has an eight-year-old daughter who attends second grade at South Ripley Elementary School.
"Naturally, I'm worried as any other parent would be after a story like this comes out," said Bastin. Are our schools doing as much as they can to keep our children safe and to prevent something like this from happening?"
Bastin said that she sat down with her daughter after school on Monday and explained to her what had happened at Sandy Hook.
"My daughter is very tenderhearted and mature for her age," said Bastin. "I gave her the facts and we prayed for all of those affected by this tragedy.
As far as gun laws go, Bastin said that she feels stricter gun laws would not have changed what happened, adding that before police jump on the band wagon, mental health issues need to be addressed. She said that she feels that these people (people with mental illnesses) are being left to run amok when they really need help.
Superintendents at South Ripley, Jac-Cen-Del and Milan say that they have emergency preparedness plans and procedures in place and all three schools conduct drills twice a year to ensure that students, teachers and administrators know what to do if something like this occurs.
"First off, I want to say that it is just heartbreaking to see the story and events on the Sandy Hook shooting. It definitely makes everyone open their eyes," said Rob Moorhead, superintendent at South Ripley. "Since the incident, I have met with our resource officer, Dan Goris, and have had conversations with principals. We are up to date on our safety drills and plans and have already held two lockdown drills this year."
"The top priority is the safety of the children. Rod Hite, junior high school principal and safety coordinator, is currently looking through plans to try to be very proactive. Officer Goris has been great and he has been getting to know the kids. Officer Goris has been coordinating meetings with other resource officers at other school corporations where they discuss what's happening in each district to always see where we can improve or make changes," said Moorhead.
"It's sad that there are never any 100-percent guarantees, Moorhead added. "All we can do is take measures to limit injuries and deaths. All of our schools have safety doors in place. All exterior doors are locked during the day except for the main entrance until school is out at the end of the day. So, anyone entering the building must come to the office first."
Dr. Leanna Phillippe, superintendent at Jac-Cen-Del, said that she is very saddened by the events last Friday.
"Our hearts and thoughts go out to the students, staff and families (at Sandy Hook). Jac-Cen-Del Community School has two trained school specialists that support our administrators in the decision making process," Dr. Phillippe said. "I met earlier in the fall and have made some adjustments that are being addressed. However, after such a horrific event, we are again meeting and ensuring the safety of our students. I do not foresee any new policies, just reevaluating our practices. We want our parents to know that when they send their children to us, we will do everything in our power to keep them safe from harm."
Dr. Phillippe said that she doesn't think a change in gun laws will change the threat to students, adding that unstable or mentally ill individuals will find a way just as they did Friday in Connecticut. "We must continue to provide support for these individuals and their treatment."
"At this time, the most important focus for JCD is letting the staff and students know we are here to support them. We want the students to feel safe and to express any concerns. Parents need to inform the school if their child is experiencing abnormal stress or anxiety linked to this event. All schools have counselors that can help children through this or provide information that the parent may follow up with other resources," Dr. Phillipe said.
Dr. Thomas Reale, superintendent at Milan schools, said that staff had been addressed Monday morning regarding the Sandy Hook incident. Students who have concerns or worries are encouraged to stop in the school office where they will be taken aside and given special attention.
"We have an emergency preparedness plan and procedures in place. We were just recertified by the state this fall. Over the next several weeks, we will get together and review our plan to see if we can do anything to make it better," Dr. Reale said. "We currently perform two lockdown drills each year, in addition to the fire and tornado drills. Unfortunately, we can't prevent this type of thing from happening, but we can lessen the chances on the limit of people who are put in danger by following the emergency procedures."
As far as gun laws go, Dr. Reale said that he believes there should be a background check done on anyone purchasing a gun, as well as a five-day waiting period. That way, the person who is angry may possibly calm down during those five days and rethink what they were going to do.
"Do we really need assault weapons? The shooter had access because his mother could buy it. I don't believe in infringing on the rights of hunters or others using their guns legitimately, but no one wants to go deer hunting and blow the deer in half," Dr. Reale said.
ISP Public Information Officer Noel Houze from the Versailles post said that all state troopers are required to train annually on handling an active shooter. The primary goal of the ISP is to stop the threat first, then immediately provide assistance to those people who are injured.
"It used to be a requirement to call in a SWAT team prior to making entry in a situation like this; however, while waiting around for the SWAT team, a shooter could be inside killing more people. We make entry, locate the threat and then stop it," Officer Houze said.
Houze did say that the response times would vary depending on how many officers are at the post and the distance to the school. Officers could be on the scene within a couple of minutes at South Ripley, because it is located close to the ISP post. However, if there is only one sworn officer at the post, that officer cannot leave to assist in an emergency. Other on-duty officers would need to be dispatched.
Houze said that he feels that principals having guns would be no different than airline pilots having guns. Someone appropriately trained and a situation like this comes up, the principal or trained individual could possibly mitigate and, in certain circumstances, stop a threat, but there are no guarantees. I think this is more of a mental health issue than a gun issue," Officer Houze said, adding that people need to look for signs.
"They (shooters) may comment on their intended actions or maybe practice shooting their guns more often than usual. Sometimes they are not taken seriously and those around them just blow it off as if it's nothing. These types of things should be reported immediately so that law enforcement officials can determine if there is indeed a threat," Officer Houze said.
Ripley County Sheriff Tom Grills said that his department is prepared to handle an emergency like this if the situation were to arise.
"The sheriff's office has extensive active shooter training, three of us, including me, are instructors, and two more are trained instructors in S.A.V.E., a program on how to implement Fire and EMS in recovery of victims during and after the incident, we are ready," Grills said. I will not go into detail about munitions, just know that I am tactically minded and brought that to the sheriff's office back in 2007."
"All of my deputies are cleared to train with, and have trained with, the Indiana State Police Emergency Response Team. We are committed to protecting our citizens," he said.
"Every school corporation should communicate with each other, and have one action plan to incorporate law enforcement so in emergencies, nobody is wondering if this school acts as the others, and who is doing what," Sheriff Grills said, adding that he is open to meeting with Ripley County schools to discuss emergency response plans.
Regarding gun laws, Grills said that he doesn't feel any more gun laws are necessary.
"Laws only correct and police the abiders, not the criminals. They will find guns no matter what the circumstance if they want them. Arm the people and that keeps the criminals at bay and thinking twice about victimizing someone who potentially has a gun. Not one active shooter has witnessed a marked car or fully uniformed officer, and continued with his/her plan that I am aware of. And, armed citizens, in some cases, stop deadly encounters before police are on scene."