The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 16, 2012

Following Connecticut tragedy, local officials discuss school safety

The News Courier

— By Rebecca Croomes and Kim West

           The News Courier

The nation watched in horror Friday after a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Connecticut and killed 26 people, 20 of them children.

According to multiple news reports, a man identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in picturesque Newtown, Conn., Friday morning, and opened fire inside the K-4 school before turning a gun on himself.

Among the dead at the scene were 20 children and seven adults, including the school principal, a mother of five, and the suspected shooter.

“So our hearts are broken today — for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost,” President Obama said during a press conference at the White House Friday. “In the hard days to come, that community needs us to be at our best as Americans.”

The president also ordered flags to fly at half-staff until Dec. 18.

Limestone reaction

In Limestone County, school officials are taking the shooting seriously.

“Certainly the administration will go back and revisit our preventive measures for intruders,” said Athens City Superintendent Dr. Orman Bridges. “If there was a preventive measure that could stop this sort of thing, every school would put it in place.”

Bridges said his staff became distraught upon learning of the shootings.

“People were just in tears. Many of our staff members were in tears. We are all in this thing as a family. We are all in this business together. It affects us all.”

Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson said the situation was horrific.

“I just feel for the families up there,” Johnson, a father himself, said. “We cannot understand what makes something like this happen.”

Johnson wanted to assure the community that the police are monitoring the situation.

“If we have a problem, we’ll respond to it as best we can,” Johnson said. “You always gotta be ready.”

Johnson said he hoped his department never has to respond to such an event. Officers patrol school zones every weekday morning, Johnson said, and if there were an issue, he felt the response would be quick.

“My kids will go to school Monday,” Johnson said. “You trust and hope they’ll be fine.”

Past school shootings

Friday’s shooting in Newtown is the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. The Virginia Tech University shooting in Blacksburg, Va., resulted in the deaths of 33 people — including the shooter who shot himself — and 17 wounded on April 16, 2007.

The Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colo., resulted in 16 deaths, including 12 students, one teacher and the two student shooters, who died from self-inflicted gunshots, on April 20, 1999.

The Columbine shooting shook the country and caused many school and law enforcement officials to add mass shootings to the their list of contingency plans.

Local contingency plans

Today’s students are drilled on more than fires and severe weather — they have also been forced to learn what to do in case an intruder or a fellow student opens fire in their hallways or classrooms

Limestone County Schools has 13 major school sites, including six elementary schools, six K-12 schools and the Limestone Career Technical Center, plus the Limestone County Alternative School and Ombudsman Center.

The system has approximately 1,100 employees and more than 9,100 students. The Limestone County Sheriff’s Office provides seven certified school resource officers that rotate among the schools.

The Central Office confirmed that all students in the system participate in lockdown drills throughout the year in the event of a school shooting.

The Sheriff’s Office has a contingency plan in the event of a local school shooting, but the specifics are not made public for security reasons.

“All of our school officers are nationally certified, which includes specialized training for emergencies and disasters, and we do have a plan,” said sheriff’s department Capt. Fred Sloss, who supervises school resource officers. “I think the schools are safe, but this could happen anywhere so we have to be prepared.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy for anyone who brings weapons on school property.”

‘Safest place in America’

Stephen Delgiadice, whose 8-year-old daughter was at Sandy Hook when the shooting occurred Friday but was unharmed, told Reuters that locals regarded their borough as extremely safe.

“It's alarming, especially in Newtown, Connecticut, which we always thought was the safest place in America,” he said.

Sandy Hook Elementary is part of the Newtown Public Schools system in Fairfield County, which has a population of 916,819 and one of the highest per-capita incomes in the U.S.

The borough of Newtown, which celebrated its 300th anniversary last year, has 27,560 residents. It is located about 80 miles northeast of New York City and 45 miles southwest of Hartford, the state capital.

Sandy Hook Elementary is approximately 1,015 miles — about a 16-hour trip by car — from the city of Athens, which has a population of 21,897.