BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS Emergency entry kits given to local police departments by the Panther Valley School District helps officers gain access to barricaded buildings.
It was a year ago today that Adam Lanza, clad in black fatigues and a military vest and carrying a semi-automatic rifle and two pistols, shot open the locked door of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., walked to the kindergarten and first grade classrooms, and began firing.
When it was over, 20 small children and six adults lay dead. Lanza, later determined to have been mentally ill, turned the gun on himself.
The horror of the attack rippled across the nation, leaving in its wake vows by school districts to keep students safer. Each of the school districts in the TIMES NEWS coverage area has improved security, building sally ports to corral visitors, keeping doors locked, installing cameras and working with police to conduct drills.
"Everything a school can do to help prevent a situation, they are to be commended for doing," said Carbon County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Nalesnik. "Most schools are doing whatever they can to try to fend off whatever might come up. It's impossible to prevent everything, but at least they are doing what they can to ward off any issue that might arise."
In Jim Thorpe, Superintendent Barbara Conway has overseen the installation of a glass sally port that keeps visitors to the high school contained. Tamaqua Area School District Assistant Superintendent Ray Kinder said security film has been applied to ground floor classroom windows to prevent people from seeing inside. Palmerton Superintendent Scot Engler said administrators have attended training sessions with the Governor's Office of Homeland Security, and in Weatherly, additional cameras have been installed and both interior and exterior doors have been replaced with stronger ones, said Superintendent Tom McLaughlin. Panther Valley Superintendent Rosemary Porembo said entrances to both the elementary and high schools have been redesigned, and visitor procedures changed with security in mind. The Pleasant Valley School District, which has long had security measures in place, "looked at procedures and practices and made sure they are as good as they can be following Sandy Hook," said Chris Fisher, assistant to the superintendent. The Lehighton Area School District has card readers for employees, has increased the number of security cameras throughout the district, among other changes, said Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver. Northern Lehigh School District Superintendent Michael W. Michaels, who is a state fire instructor, said his district had security enhancement plans in place well before Sandy Hook.
"Northern Lehigh has always been on cutting edge. We have made changes, but they were already on the list," he said.
The district has a safety committee whose members include police and firefighters. It has installed new doors in the middle school, and has arranged for Secret Service agents to come to the district for a presentation.
Nalesnik has coordinated several practice school lockdowns and drills involving numerous agencies and departments in Carbon County schools.
"The possibility is always out there that an incident could happen at one of the schools. It makes sense to plan and prepare for response and reaction to whatever might happen," he said.
Panther Valley parent Angela Krapf is not confident her children are safe in school. She's particularly concerned about elementary students housed in portable classrooms.
"The children roam back and forth from the trailer to the school to use the restroom. I think it's great they have a 'secured' door, but when the buzzer is pushed, nine times out of 10 they just open the door with no questions asked. I do not feel they are proactive about increasing the safety at the school," she said.
Another Panther parent, Andrea Boswell, said it's impossible to know who is dangerous.
"The scary thing is the people were familiar with the shooter in Sandy Hook. They certainly had no clue about what was about to happen. How do you know when someone is going to snap or what they are carrying on them? People get buzzed into the school all the time because they (staff) know who we are," she said.
Liz Pinkey, whose three children attend a local parochial school, said she feels they are safe.
"Obviously, schools need to have a reasonable emergency plan. Following the Newtown incident, our school reviewed their emergency plan and reviewed it with the students and parents. That's a tricky subject to cover with young children. They need to be aware of how to act in an emergency without being terrified about what 'might' happen," she said. "I have complete faith that the staff at my children's school will do whatever they can to keep my children as safe as possible. I have to, because if I let the fear in and let it control me, then we stop living, and then, the bad guys win, without even trying."
State Lawmakers study school safety
The state House Select Committee for School Safety released its final report on Sept. 30, several months after legislators approved $8.5 million to provide Safe School grants for resource officers, emergency training and violence prevention initiatives.
"When the unimaginable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was reported across the nation, we in the legislature not only mourned the loss of these innocent victims, but we also felt the call to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again," committee chairman Rep. Gary Day, R-Berks-Lehigh, and vice-chairwoman Rep. Cherelle Parker, D-Philadelphia, wrote.
The committee studied and researched, brought in experts, and listened to testimony. Its recommendations include installing panic buttons in school front offices or on wireless pendants for teachers and administrators to alert emergency responders; implement "choke point" security models with retired police officers screening visitors entering schools, conduct monthly lockdown and active- shooter drills, and work with local police to develop lockdown security procedures, require staff to complete National Incident Management Systems training and amend the Sunshine law to allow school boards to discuss security measures in private.
Further, the study recommends preventive measures including advising schools to strengthen their mental health policies, such as establishing Student Assistance Programs for early intervention, Positive Behavior Supports, mentoring and restorative justice practices.
Security expert speaks
"Our phone and email inquiries for security assessments, training, and help with crisis and parent communications planning were off-the-hook beginning the day of the Sandy Hook shootings and continuing on for months," said Ken Trump of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, Ohio.
"We're happy to see schools doing things again with security and preparedness efforts. We just wish school boards and superintendents would sustain that level of interest and activities when there is not a crisis in the forefront of everyone's minds and parent demands to know what their schools are doing to strengthen safety," he said.
In a recent blog, Trump wrote that "surveillance cameras and fortified front entranceways with enhanced access control are among the most common security equipment purchases by school districts reacting over the past year to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Meanwhile, many schools continue to fail to invest the time and resources into the training, planning, exercising of crisis plans and other more critical human aspects of school safety."
On Nov. 27, police were called to the Jim Thorpe Area High School after 18-year-old Sabir Johnson allegedly smuggled in a replica revolver, fully loaded with metal bullets, and a laser point to assist in aiming the gun. Police quickly found the gun, then searched the school, which was locked down, to make sure there were no other weapons.
As the incident unfolded, students, teachers and police knew exactly what to do, thanks to previous training and drills.
"We've been doing training in schools even before the Sandy Hook incident," Jim Thorpe Police Chief Joseph Schatz said. "We've worked hand-in-hand with the Jim Thorpe Area School District. That makes our schools a lot safer."
Schatz said police have access to the schools, including keys and swipe cards, and 24-hour live access to the schools' security camera recordings.
"If there were an event at the school, command officers can actually watch and view where we're going, and lead us to where they see something," said Jim Thorpe Det. Lee Marzen.
Summit Hill Police Chief Joseph Fittos said his department works closely with the Panther Valley School District, and has participated in multiagency drills.
"Since Sandy Hook, I've contacted Panther Valley School District to partner with us to get some tools to help us enter the buildings should there be a subject in there who has us locked out," he said. "Panther Valley immediately responded, and provided all police departments with keys and swipe cards to get into the buildings. That was something we never had before, and was a step in the right direction."
The school board also bought entry kits for police departments in the district (Summit Hill, Nesquehoning and Lansford) to break into barricaded buildings, he said.
He wants to see schools built with fewer windows, both inside and out.
"I firmly believe that, in light of what happened at Sandy Hook, just glass isn't going to stop somebody. It's nice to build schools that look nice and pretty and let the daylight in, but that doesn't protect the people inside. If somebody really wants to get in, they're going to smash the glass," he said.
On the wall behind his desk is a photograph from the 1950s of the former borough elementary school, with large open windows in every room.
"It's a different world today. It's not a matter of if, but when," he says. "Whatever we can do, along with the school district, to protect our kids, that's what we're going to do."