Schools get ready for the gunman

| 29 Jan 2016 | 02:50

By Erika Norton
— Schools are prime targets for gunmen intent on mass slaughter. But, as one school security official pointed out, while New York State requires fire drills, it does not require active shooter drills.

“Fire drills are important, but when was the last time there was a fire in a school?” said Frank Squillante, the director of security and emergency preparedness for the Monroe-Woodbury School District. “I can’t even remember. But if you pick up the newspapers or watch the news, there’s a campus shooting in the United States of America. So, it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’”

Squillante's experience in security is long and hard-core. For 25 years he was head of emergency preparedness at Riker’s Island Correctional Facility. Now at Monroe-Woodbury schools, the second-largest school district in Orange County, he has students and staff members practice lockdowns, lockouts, evacuation, and "relocation situations." Students and staff must know what to do if their school is under attack, at times when it's least expected.

“We do our drills at times that are not convenient for the school," Squillante said, offering examples: "When the caféteria is full with 400 kids, when the play is going on in the auditorium, when the PTA is having a meeting in the conference room. Every area has a plan of what they’re going to do at that time of the day.”

The organization Everytown for Gun Safety said 2015 saw 24 gun incidents at K-12 schools across the country, 15 resulting in injury or death. In nine incidents, a gun was fired but no one was injured. The figures do not include attempted or completed suicides.

New York is one of 30 states that does not require lockdown drills, according to the Education Commission of the States. New York requires that schools have emergency plans in place, and recommends, but does not require, lockdown or active shooter drills.

New Jersey, on the other hand, requires schools to conduct one security drill every month during school hours and at least two of the following drills annually: active shooter, evacuation (non-fire), bomb threat, lockdown.

Police benefit from drills
Schools that hold drills collaborate with local police officers, who have an opportunity to become familiar with the school buildings in their community. The scene of an unfolding crisis should not be the first time EMTs and police officers see each other, Squillante said.

Chester's superintendent of schools, Sean Michel, said his district conducts two lockdown drills annually with the town police, one in the fall and one in the spring. Drills occur at both school buildings simultaneously. Half the officers and school staff report to the elementary school, while the other half stays with middle and high school students at the Chester Academy.

The Warwick schools also have lockdown drills. Administrators there have taken other measures to improve security, according to Dennis Tobin, director of human resources and safety and civil rights. Warwick schools now have sun shades that outsiders cannot see through. Ceilings are marked so that teachers know how far an intruder can see into a classroom, and where to hide.

“We try to stay on the cutting edge of new recommendations," Russo said.

He said it was "horrific" that the school was learning from every new mass killing. He wants to stage an active shooter drill where staff members can hear what gunshots sound like in a building.

Russo said parents are worried about trauma afflicting students as they face up to reality. And some studies say drawing attention to active shooter situations can be dangerous.

“If there is somebody within the community that’s even thinking that way, it almost brings sensationalism to it, and there’s some concerns,” Russo said.

The Goshen schools conduct lockdown drills at least once a year, according to Superintendent of Schools Daniel T. Connor. The district has a police officer on duty at the high school five days a week. Staff members, with local police officers, practice active shooter drills during staff development days.

In November, Squillante ran a drill at the North Main Elementary School, with members of the local ambulance corps and police department on the scene. “In a lot of these situations, it isn’t until the police secure the building before the ambulance people can go in and treat possible victims, and people die because of that,” Squillante said.

Buzzers and background checks
Local schools also control access to their buildings. Most have a buzzer system that allows visitors entry only by someone inside the building.

Many schools, including some in the Monroe-Woodbury, Chester Union Free, and Warwick Valley districts, have cameras that turn on when a visitor presses the buzzer. Staff in the main office can see visitors on a screen before allowing them inside.

In addition to a buzzer system, Warwick's middle and high schools require visitors to scan their driver’s licenses, so that a background check can be conducted upon entry, according to Superintendent of Schools Dennis Tobin.

Monroe-Woodbury is considering installing a similar system. In Goshen, visitors must show proof of identification.

With 43 years in education, Superintendent Connor reflected on the changes he's seen, brought on by the long spate of school tragedies.

“Until some terrible, terrible events took place, schools were supposed to be places where we encouraged people to come,” Connor said. “We wanted people, parents, to come visit our schools. But now with the way things are, we’ve all gone to lockdowns.”