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Local schools examine security


The 20-year-old killer who stalked the halls of a small elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Friday morning left more than two dozen bodies in his wake and forced dozens of Portland-area school districts to consider the possibility that something similar could happen here.

Across the country, school leaders tried to calm the nerves of dread-ridden parents who watched in horror as details emerged from the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Portland-area school districts issued notices shortly after the shooting, reassuring parents that safety measures in place — video cameras, school resource officers, lockdown drills, and more — are well-adept at protecting students in the event of an emergency.

“The horrible tragedy in Connecticut serves as a reminder of the importance of the emergency drills and protocols we have in place to help keep our schools safe,” said Athena Vadnais, spokeswoman for the Gresham-Barlow School District. “The district is confident the safety measures we have in place will do what they’re designed to do. We prepare for various emergencies and practice regularly to respond to intruders and other emergencies.”

Adam Lanza used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to kill 20 Sandy Hook students — mostly first graders between ages 6 and 7 — during his rampage. His mother, Nancy Lanza, a gun enthusiast who owned several weapons, was his first victim.

Several school staff and teachers tried to stop the attack and were shot. Police said Adam Lanza killed himself after the rampage.

Invest in school safety

Events that unfolded Friday on the East Coast brought even more fear to a region already shaken by the Dec. 11 Clackamas Town Center shooting. School districts had counselors on hand to speak with students struggling with news of the recent violent acts.

The Lake Oswego School District instructed principals to be on “high alert,” watch front entrances of their schools and lock all auxiliary doors. The West Linn-Wilsonville School District, along with others, even made counselors available to parents needing help addressing their child’s concerns and sense of safety.

Both tragedies also made school districts reflect on current safety protocol and brainstorm possible improvements.

In a letter sent to parents last Friday, John Ferraro, principal at Jackson Middle School in Portland, said he was searching for ways to upgrade protective measures.

Rob Saxton, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the Oregon Department of Education, said he was contacting schools to ensure thorough reviews of safety procedures were being conducted.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our students while they are in our care and I know the teachers and administrators in our schools take this responsibility incredibly seriously,” said Saxton, former Tigard-Tualatin School District superintendent.

Friday was also an opportunity to remind parents of the numerous steps schools have taken to protect students and respond swiftly to an intruder.

Reynolds High School, for example, has the ability to lock all auxiliary and classroom doors during an emergency. Video surveillance has been installed throughout the school and at all entrances, with an employee watching the monitors. Visitors are required to check in at the main office, and the district conducts regular safety meetings with staff.

The high school also makes its building available to law enforcement to hold shooter-simulation exercises and become familiar with the layout of the school.

“We’re doing everything to keep our kids safe,” Reynolds School District spokeswoman Andrea Watson said.

The Gresham-Barlow School District, along with others, employ school resource officers who carry guns on campus. But, as with all districts, resources dictate the amount of security measures available at each school.

“If we had additional resources to invest in school safety, we would add additional administrative support and campus monitors to provide a positive adult presence in our schools for both students and visitors,” Vadnais said.

In good shape

Some school districts that have received additional resources from bond measures, including the Springfield School District, home of Thurston High School, the site of another shooting that killed two students in 1998.

Voters approved a bond that allowed the district to improve security with fences, surveillance cameras, increased visibility and limited outside access.

A bond passed in 2008 allowed the Oregon Trail School District to upgrade security at all schools, including the new Sandy High School.

“We are also fortunate that citizens approved a bond measure in 2008 that allowed us to make significant security improvements at every school in our district, including automatic door-lock systems and security cameras,” according to a Dec. 14 district press release.

The high school was designed for staff in the main office to have clear visibility of the main entrance. But at other schools in the district, staff in the front office, where all visitors are required to check in, have limited visibility of those coming and going through the front doors.

Julia Monteith, the district’s spokeswoman, admits that deficiencies exist, but said that the schools counter the issue by always trying to have staff present in the hallways.

“We know that there are vulnerabilities,” she said. “If we could redesign every school in the district we would do it. What we can do is keep all other doors locked.”

Other districts have been forced to repeal certain safety measures because of budget cuts, such as Estacada High School, which had a school resource officer on campus.

Today, the one Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy patrolling the city of Estacada is the officer who would respond to an incident at the high school. That response time, however, can vary greatly because the city doesn’t have its own police force.

But on the rare occasion the high school has called the police for a serious matter, Assistant Principal Gary Lewis said the response time has always been fast.

“Could I sit here today and say we’re 100 percent safe? Probably not,” Lewis said. “We try to do everything we possibly can to make sure our kids are safe. Short of the school resource officer, we’re in about as good of shape as we could be.

“We take security very seriously, but I don’t know if you can ever do enough.”

Pamplin Media Group reporters Christina Lent, Saundra Sorenson, Raymond Rendleman, Drew Dakessian and Lori Hall contributed to this news story.