A guest post about keeping our students safe

The shooting at the elementary school in Newtown is still much on my mind this week. Today I have a special guest blogger, Kate Lutter, who is a fellow CMP author and was previously an elementary school principal. Kate has offered to share her reaction as a former principal and her insights. The important thing is to use this tragedy as an opportunity to start a dialogue about how we can make a change for the better. I’m not sure anyone has the answers yet, but we need to start talking. Feel free to leave a comment–all opinions are welcome as long as they are polite and respectful.

After the Massacre at Newtown, if We Do Nothing Now, Can We Keep Our Students Safe?

by Kate Lutter


          Let me put my cards on the table.

I write novels for a living. But I used to be an elementary school principal in Edison, New Jersey.  I ran a building for K-5 (kindergarten through fifth grade) for eight years, and although the population varied (the highest student populaation was 640 students) the median number was about 500 students. I had one full time nurse and one full time counselor.

The front of our school was glass.  My school sounded a lot like Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut.

When I heard what happened, when the news slowly eeked out, when the facts became clearer–who had done the shooting, what weapon had been used, how the shooter had gained access to the building, and eventually how the staff inside reacted once they realized an intruder was present–I have to admit, my heart pounded.  And then I cried.

I imagined myself in that same scenario, and I asked myself what I would have done as principal if someone entered my building, blasted their way through the glass with a semi-automatic rifle, clearly intent on murdering the children?

When I became principal, we were on the verge of instituting many security procedures that are now common place in most elementary schools:

A single entrance into a school–a front door which was locked after the students entered in the morning, and which included a camera and a buzzer system.

Lock down drills which required extensive staff and student training.

Evacuation procedures which also required extensive planning and again extensive training for both staff and students.

Name tags that every staff member was required to wear and visitor tags which every visitor to the building was required to procur once they entered the building and wear, which made it easier to spot anyone in the building who did not belong there.

What prompted this “high security” was the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorada in 1999. That incident pushed the education community to re-evaluate what needed to be done to keep our students safe.

Now, it seems, that bar needs to be raised again.  And I do not make that statement lightly.  Schools are not a prison.  And although some schools in the inner cities and even some high schools may have a police officer that roams the building armed with a gun to keep the peace, most schools do not have a guard or a police presence.

The plain fact is that even if you legally own a weapon, you are prohibited by law from bringing that weapon onto school property. The culture of school is that it is a very special place, and it is believed by many that the risk of bringing weapons into such a protected zone far outweighs the benefits.  Classrooms are not equipped with safes where teachers could store weapons.  We do not want to turn a school into a shooting range if and when an incident occurs. It would be unimaginable.

And yet . . . Newtown, Connecticut forces us to re-examine the dilemma we are in as we fight to keep our schools safe.

Here are my thoughts as an ex-principal:

All of the security procedures that we and most schools instituted after Columbine are valid, but are they enough to keep our children safe?

The intruder, using a semi-automatic rifle, was able to shoot his way through the glass window and gain entrance through the locked door.

The intruder, using a semi-automatic rifle–the only person with a weapon in a “weapon free zone”–was able to make his way down the corridor of a school after having murdered the principal and counselor and within a matter of minutes or, perhaps, it was seconds, murder twenty children and four more teachers.

In fact, the reports that are now coming out say that a single child had as many as eleven bullets in his/her body. No wonder there were so few survivors.  Although I did hear of one first grade girl who pretended to be dead. She later exited the building covered in her classmates‘ blood.

That was how she survived.

The “lock down” procedure, no doubt, protected other students and teachers, but I wonder if the intruder had wanted to, could he have shot his way into other classrooms and taken more lives?

It’s believed he had enough ammunition on him to do so.

The “lock down” procedure I used in my building was predicated on a code word that would be spoken over the intercom.  I don’t know what they used at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  In theory, the code word would kick in “lock down.” Teachers upon hearing that word were instructed to lock their classroom doors, turn off the lights, huddle the children in the safest part of the classroom, keep them quiet and wait.

How long does it take for the police to arrive?  Five minutes.  Ten minutes.

It became glaringly apparent to me as I ended my tenure at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Edison, New Jersey, and as more and more schools became the battlegrounds for intruders and more and more lives were taken, that the security procedures put into place after Columbine were not enough.

Now I am absolutely convinced of it.

This is what I rest my case on–that schools are very special places where we bring a large quantity of children together in a so-called protected environment. Because we try to eliminate all possible risk of accidental death, we establish a “weapon free zone” in the schools, which means that no one is allowed to bring a gun or knife or any kind of weapon into the building or onto school grounds.

The only defense the staff had against the intruder was the “lock down procedure” which clearly has its limits against a semi-automatic rifle.

I believe in the Constitution and the second amendment.  I have friends and relatives who legally own guns.  They like to hunt.

A ban on assault type weapons would not impinge upon their right to hunt and bear arms.  A ban on magazine clips would not impinge upon their right to hunt and bear arms.  A law that abolishes the loop hole that now exists which allows people to buy guns at gunshows with little or no background checks would not impinge upon their right to hunt or bear arms.

I am calling for balance here.

Our children have a right to be protected in school against assault-like weapons that can kill twenty children and put eleven bullets in a body in less than five minutes. There is no way to protect children in a building when that kind of weaponry exists on the market and is easily accessible.

President Obama said it best.  Our hearts are broken.  We all feel the pain.

I hope that pain galvanizes us to do what is right here and protect the children.

Kate Lutter has taught high school, coordinated a school district’s staff development program, and served as an elementary school principal, before she jumped off the cliff and decided to write full time.

Now, she lives in New Jersey with her husband and five cats and spends her days writing, studying Italian, gardening, travelling, volunteering at a local cat shelter, and hanging out with her extended family.

Writing is what keeps her sane on a daily basis.

Check out her website at www.katelutter.com

About Cindy Young-Turner

Hippie chick who is still hoping to change the world someday. Author of the fantasy novel, Thief of Hope.
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2 Responses to A guest post about keeping our students safe

  1. Kate Lutter says:

    Thank you, Cindy, for posting my blog. I feel so strongly about school security because I Iived it for eight years. I can honestly say I would have acted like the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary and tried to stop the intruder. The culture in a school is so strong–every adult wants to keep the students safe. I hope that someday in our country–which I love so much—that we can reach a balance. People who love guns can keep their guns. But with certain reasonable measures in place, we can keep our children safe. Have a lovely and safe holiday.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Kate. I agree that finding balance is key. Knee jerk reactions either way won’t help us in the long run. Teachers and educators are true heroes. Our children–our future–rest in their hands. I wish we could truly invest in our schools and our children. I believe improving education for all kids is one of the keys to solving many of the problems our country faces today. Finding ways to keep them safe is also part of it. Happy holidays to you also and I hope we can all find some peace during this time when so many are still hurting.

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